The April stage show was at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge south of Spokane: the characters, an osprey, a great horned owl and a Canada goose; the scene, a stop on the Pine Creek auto loop; the props, two 80-foot-tall snags with osprey nests.
The great horned owl was in one osprey nest, a Canada goose in the other. The ospreys were probably sulking out of sight following the hostile takeover of their newest nest and reviewing their nest-building options.
Last year, ospreys had occupied their new nest while an owl and a goose jockeyed over rights to an older one. The owl won then, and this year moved to the newer osprey abode.
Great horned owls don’t nest in cavities (they’re up to 2 feet long with wingspans of 3 to 5 feet) and they don’t build nests.
“They’re much more aggressive (than ospreys) and nest earlier than most birds and that makes it easier to claim a nest,” said refuge biologist Mike Rule.
“They don’t do any maintenance, either. They’re not good tenants. They usually use it every year until the thing falls apart and then they grab the next good nest,” Rule said.
Canada geese have nested in trees on the refuge for a long time, and that they will nest in great blue heron, red-tailed hawk and osprey nests.
Chicks can be counted by waiting until their heads appear above the rim of the nest. Fortunately, both species’ young do not appear to have a fear of heights.
“The (Canada) goose chicks are so light and fluffy that they just float to the ground. I’ve seen a nest of fledglings on rimrock higher than these nests and they jumped off the cliff, hit the talus slope and tumbled down through the rocks. The female met them at the bottom and they all walked off,” Rule said.
Great horned owls have a brood-reduction strategy that they exercise if the food supply is inadequate for several chicks.
“When they’re laying their clutch, they start incubating immediately so that the eggs hatch at different times. When the food supply is low, the owlet that is hatched first will survive. If there’s enough food, the second survives. If the food supply is limited and there’s not enough for a third owlet, the youngest starves.”
Here are a few facts about great horned owls:
• Identified by the prominent widely spaced ear tufts (“horns”) on its head that are not hearing-related. It’s the only large owl with prominent ear tufts.
• It’s one of the most common and widespread owls in North America as well as the largest. Captive birds have lived as long as 38 years; banded wild owls up to 13 years.
• In 2009 in Iowa, a Pomeranian was dognapped by a great horned owl, carried for more than 20 blocks before being dropped. A driver saw it fall, got out, raced to the dog with a broken tail before the owl could return for dinner.
It was a twist worthy of a good playwright.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.