Grove CSI: Owl Strike

Neither of us have seen the owls, although there might have been a distant sighting of one earlier in the winter. After the winds had ripped the last of the leaves from the trees in the grove we witnessed what seemed to be a silhouette reminiscent of a stately owl on a limb of the huge cottonwood that stands as a sentinel on the far northeast corner of our stand of trees. My binoculars made the darkened dot a little larger, enough so that it might resemble what you envision as a great horned owl. That is as close as we have come to seeing one.

The cottonwood is high enough to give an owl a vantage point view of both our eight acres of prairie and a wetland just over the rise of the hill on the other side of the road.   

We know owls are around us for we can hear them hooting. First one, then another. One closer, the other more distant. Just a quarter mile to the west of our farm is another good sized woodland … good sized in Minnesota prairie terms. Perhaps five acres in all, right along the gravel road. The distant hoot could come from there if the closer one is in our grove. 

Rather convincing evidence that owls are near greeted me on my return from the mailbox the other evening. Laying beneath the canopy of our recently cleaned grove was the carcass of a red bellied woodpecker with the upper skull eaten away. Perhaps this was the one I’ve been stalking with my camera. A red bellied was one of the first species to find our feeder once we got around to filling it with the ever popular black sunflower seeds.  

In my quest to capture an image of this beautiful bird I’ve set up my blind to no avail, and my luck using a remote shutter release wasn’t much better. This was one camera shy bird, unlike some of the other species coming to the feeder. The smallest woodpecker, the downy, and the larger hairy woodpeckers, have joined the bluejays and nuthatches in my digital cache of photographs, but not the red bellied.

Finding the carcass seemed to answer why the sightings of the red bellied had suddenly become so scarce. We’ve missed that telltale swoop down to the small tree the holds the squirrel-proof feeder, for the red caught your eye especially on those gray or whitish mornings. It would land low on the base of the tree and skitter up the trunk to where it was just a short hop over to the feeder. Once a seed was secured, off it would fly over the solarium porch back to the grove.

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Seeing the red bellied in the grove earlier in the fall keyed our decision to keep a number of what we called our “woodpecker trees” among the ash and other trees too immature for the saw. As we worked around one tree in particular, one with obvious pecked holes in the long dead wood of the trunk, the woodpecker had briefly peeked out at us. We assumed this was where the red bellied was returning with its seed. When the hairys return to the grove with their seeds they alight on our “lightning” tree, crawling up ever higher before breaking open the seed. Not the red bellied, for it typically flew deeper into the grove to its tree. That flash of red wasn’t good for keeping secrets. Not from us, nor apparently from the owl.

When I found the carcass, most of the head and that telltale identifying red stripe on the crown was gone. Eaten away in a meal of nature. 

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It was on a canoeing trip years ago on the Chippewa River that made me instantly think the culprit in the demise of the red bellied was an owl. We had just paddled around a bend when we came upon a noisy confrontation. Perched on a staunch limb just below the protective outreach of the canopy was a great horned owl, and scurrying all around it was a murder of crows, diving and cawing, threatening the much larger and dangerous bird of prey with pronounced racket and mayhem.   

“Accusations,” suggested my paddling and fishing friend, Wes Konzin as we slowed the canoe. “I think it all comes down to beheadings.”

Sometimes you can sneak into the inner workings of the natural world in a canoe, or it may materialize beside you while quietly waiting in a deer tree stand. We were completely unheeded as we drifted by, intently watching the confrontation. Surprisingly, the owl suddenly bolted from the tree, hastily beating its wings to escape just over us in that supremely hush of owl flight with the murder close behind, cawing, some deftly diving at its head, to land again inside of an outstretched canopy of a tree just down river. There the murder of crows continued their relentless attack.   

The birds know. So the beheading of the red bellied was a circumstantial CSI moment in the grove perhaps.   

After finding the carcass, calls were made to a couple of naturalists who both confirmed that the red bellied woodpecker had likely met its fate at the beak of an owl, that the eating of the head was indeed a significant clue.

Death is often sad, especially for those who remember a certain specialness. For the shy woodpecker, we’ll miss that flash of red swooping into our little square window to the outside world, its hopping up the narrow trunk of the tree, at how nervously it looked around in a search of danger, the quick stab for a single sunflower seed, then just as quickly, the flash of red disappearing back toward a hideaway in the grove. One of those flights was its last.

All in the realm of nature.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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