by Frank Keim
The Boreal owl is just about the tamest large bird in Alaska. Many years ago near Scammon Bay I skied so close to one I could probably have put my hands around him and taken him home. I didn’t, but got some good close-up photos instead. Two other similar experiences in the Delta convinced me this owl was either fearless or blind to my approach in the bright sunlight. Or both. In fact, the Yup’ik name, Takvialnguaraq means “having poor eyesight,” probably referring to its bad eyesight when perched above the snow during a bright winter day. It has two other Yup’ik names that I know of, Qaku’urtaruaq, and Qaku’urtayaraq, both referring to one of the owl’s two nocturnal calls, which may be interpreted as “nagging.”
I remember one early March in Russian Mission many years ago while skiing at night in the slough with a friend, we heard two of these owls bantering back and forth. The owls were in courting mode, and what was certainly their courting “song” didn’t sound anything like “nagging” at all. In fact, it was more like a rapid series of low, whistled toots: phoo phoo phoo phoo phoo phoo phoo phoo phoo. I was so touched by what I heard that I wrote a poem about it the same night. Meanwhile here are some facts about Takvialnguaraq.
The scientific name for this friendly little owl is Aegolius funereus. Aegolius is Ancient Greek for the genus of forest owls, and means “bird of ill omen”; funereus means “mournful” in Latin, referring to one of its calls, which must have reminded Europeans of “wailing for the dead.” Its common name, boreal, alludes to its northern range, usually in coniferous forests around the world.
The female is larger than the male and, as with many other Alaskan owls, the Boreal owl eats small mammals and birds and large insects, which they capture with their dagger-like talons. One of its earholes is placed higher than the other, which helps them better locate the sound of their prey. They also have unique flight feathers that allow them to sneak up on their target with lethal silence. Take a close look at their first primary feathers, and you’ll see they have a soft saw-toothed leading edge that reduces the vortex noise of the air passing over the wings. This makes them one of the most efficient nocturnal hunters in the forest.
Boreal owls are mostly solitary birds, even in the breeding season. Mated pairs don’t roost together and usually only meet up at the nest site during courtship and feeding. The male courts the female with song and food, ritually feeding her for up to three months before nesting. While courting her he may fly repeatedly between her and a potential nesting cavity, usually a large abandoned woodpecker hole. Like many other owl species, he also feeds her throughout the nesting period. Just prior to transferring his prey to the female or young at the nest he will utter a soft call to let her know he’s coming. If she doesn’t respond to his first call, he will repeat it. The pair only has one brood per year.
Sometime between April and June, depending on the weather, 3-10 pure white eggs are laid in the nest. The female alone incubates these eggs. Within a month they hatch, and in another month the fuzzy sooty-brown young launch themselves for the first time into a world filled with predators, such as Goshawks and Great-horned owls, which take a large toll of these little guys. Since they don’t migrate, winter also claims many of them. If they’re lucky, though, they might live to the ripe old age of 15 or 16.