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Students learn what makes the owl hoot

It was hard to tell who was the most transfixed - the students in Celeste Kawulok's fifth grade class at Churchill Elementary School, or the tiny owl who passed solemnly through their midst last Friday.

It was hard to tell who was the most transfixed - the students in Celeste Kawulok's fifth grade class at Churchill Elementary School, or the tiny owl who passed solemnly through their midst last Friday.

The pint-sized raptor, a gray morph Eastern Screech Owl named Bosley, came from the Lake Superior Zoo, where he has lived in captivity after being rescued from his nest as a baby after the tree in which it was located blew over.

Bosley's visit to the local class represented a unit on owls the students are studying as part of a year-long curriculum on bird life. On Thursday, Julie O'Connor of the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory talked with the class about how raptors fly, hunt and survive in the wild.

At last Friday's session, O'Connor talked specifically about owls - how they have offset ears and low light vision to help locate their prey, how they are able to swivel their heads three-quarters of the way around due to a special structure of 14 vertebrae in their backs, how they have hearing so acute they can hear the heartbeat of a mouse underneath the snow, and how they can fly so silently they are able to sneak up on their prey without being heard.

O'Connor showed students examples of several different owls' wings, pointing out how they have a "comb" along the front edges to break up the air as they fly. The owl's soft, down-like feathers prevent air from getting caught in them as it flies, allowing it to fly more silently than some other birds.

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O'Connor further explained though some owls are diurnal (active during the day), most are nocturnal and do all of their hunting at night. Since those owls sleep and stay inactive during daylight hours when most other birds are out and about, she said they like to seek out secluded perches, sometimes in the notches of dead trees, and then hunker down, stay out of sight and sleep where they aren't vulnerable to other predators.

"Owls absolutely hate crows, and they hate blue jays and they hate chickadees," said O'Connor. "That's because when one of those types of birds spots an owl, it goes for 'help,' and a whole bunch of them get together to mob the owl and chase it away."

In their search to remain "invisible," O'Connor said owls look for camouflage by blending in with bark similar to their own coloration and patterns, closing their spotlight-like eyes and stretching themselves out to look like one of the tree branches surrounding them.

"It's extremely difficult to hide in nature," she said.

She talked about the owls' spring courtship, which is in full swing right now, telling of how owl calls can be heard with increasing frequency at this time of the spring in the hope that prospective mates might hear them, often from great distances.

O'Connor said there are generally three types of owls in our immediate area - the Great-Horned Owl, the Barred Owl and the Saw Whet Owl, and the calls of each always follow a certain rhythm that can be used in identifying them.

Bosley made his appearance at the conclusion of Friday's session along with Erin Manning of the Lake Superior Zoo, who carried him up and down the aisles of the classroom on a gloved hand. She said though owls usually only live to be around eight to 10 years old in the wild due to predation, they can live to as many as 15 or 20 years in captivity. Bosley is currently 11.

Manning went on to tell students the diminutive woodland owl, about eight inches in length, weighs only 140 grams - the approximate weight of a box of paper clips.

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The two-part program presented by the two women is presented to all elementary fourth grade classes in the area as a precursor to their fifth-grade class trip to Wolf Ridge the following fall. They made last week's special appearance at Kawulok's classroom because of their year-long specialized study of birds.

Pine Journal Publisher/ reporter Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: wjohnson@pinejournal.com .

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