Owls have been a harbinger of death in English poetry, and a felicitous sign to ancient Greeks (who had a coin stamped with the image of an owl). Seattleite Aaron Martin took his...

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Owls have been a harbinger of death in English poetry, and a felicitous sign to ancient Greeks (who had a coin stamped with the image of an owl).

Seattleite Aaron Martin took his sighting this October as the arrival of extremely good luck.

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“It was exciting,” he says. “I had never seen an owl in the city before.”

He had also never imagined his first opportunity would happen on a busy urban sidewalk.

The fledgling birder and owl enthusiast was running an errand downtown when he stopped short at spotting the unexpected bird in a streetside tree. Momentarily baffled, Martin scrambled for the Sibley bird guide he happened to be carrying to confirm what he’d seen: a sleepy-eyed barred owl perched just 15 feet above him near the busy corner of Fourth and Pike. A photo of the owl appeared in the newspaper that week.

Martin, who has visited city parks at dusk in search of the raptors, is just one of a Seattle-area clutch of owl enthusiasts who know what many urban dwellers don’t: This character of myth and fairy tale shares the city with us.

Owl tracking on Bainbridge Island

Downtown Seattle’s barred owl
is as non-native as many of us. Barred owls weren’t seen in the Pacific Northwest until as late as the 1960s, when they completed a westward migration that took them from the East Coast through Canada to Eastern Washington. Today these successful owls are “here in force,” says biologist Dawn Garcia, who has joined others in banding and tracking birds for a Bainbridge Island study to discover the home range, dispersal and population of territorial pairs in that area. Barred owls have been able to displace other native owls in parts of our region, and have sometimes bred with spotted owls on the Olympic Peninsula, creating a hybrid referred to as a “Sparred Owl.” On Jan. 3, Garcia will give a talk on the subject at the University of Washington. For more information, contact the College of Forest
Resources at 206-543-2730 or see www.cfr.washington.edu.

Some Northwest native owls, such as the spotted owl, require more dense habitat than the city can offer, but others such as barred, barn, great horned and western screech owls are regularly found here.

And infrequent visitors such as short-eared, long-eared, and northern saw-whets thrill birders when they’re sighted. The raptors have nested in several Seattle parks, usually those with ample woods such as Discovery, Schmitz, Lincoln and Carkeek.

At Sand Point Magnuson Park, barn owls have sometimes found homes in unused buildings. (Owls don’t generally build nests, but either confiscate those of other birds, such as crows, or use tree cavities).

One rarely-seen species, the fluffy white Arctic-dwelling snowy owl, appears in large numbers in our area only about every 7 to 10 years, in what is called an “irruption,” as young owls leave home ground looking for food.

All shapes and sizes


Finding an owl

The Seattle parks in the story are your best bets for finding urban owls. The birds are occasionally seen or heard during the day, but more often at dawn, dusk and night. Try looking for owl pellets — compacted clumps of indigestible bone and fur regurgitated after an owl consumes prey. A thick whitewash (potentially owl feces) on tree trunks should also warrant a look up. Because they offer cover, evergreens are more likely perches in late fall and winter. If owling at night, go with others for safety and stay quiet.

Owls sometimes respond to calls, which range from the blood-curdling screech of a barn owl to a barred owl’s hooting. Spring and fall are noisier times, when owls are defending territory. Some babies make loud begging noises in spring.

If you bring a flashlight on evening walks, do not shine it directly at the owl.

To encourage owls in the city, those with yards should leave old trees as habitat. If you live beside a woody area, you might consider putting up a nest box.


Seattle Audubon Society’s BirdWeb offers information about native owl species: www.birdweb.org

The Owl Pages is a fact-packed Web site with recordings of owl calls: www.owlpages.com

Events this winter

Camp Long in West Seattle will offer two owl events in February:

• Feb. 19, 1-3 p.m., ages 8-12 can learn about owls and dissect an owl pellet, then go on an Owl Prowl. $10 per child.

• Feb. 26, 7:30-10 p.m., an Owl Prowl through Schmitz Park and Camp Long will include a naturalist using voice and recordings to attract owls; plus hot cider in front of the fire at Camp Long. $7 adults/$4 children. These events are likely to fill, so preregister at 206-684-7434 or e-mail camplong@seattle.gov.

Woodland Park Zoo: The raptor center has owl flying programs and exhibits, and keeps great horned, barred, barn and great gray owls. Information: www.zoo.org or 206-684-4800.

Seattle Audubon offers a birding field trip to Schmitz Park — not specifically looking for owls — Dec. 18 at 9 a.m. The group will also offer owl prowls this winter. See www.seattleaudubon.org.

Owls seem to excite even non-birdwatchers, perhaps because, like bald eagles, they are raptors with keen eyesight and sharp talons, but are mostly nocturnal and thus rarely seen.

Their many unusual adaptations make them fierce hunters of small mammals and other prey.

Asymmetrically-placed ears help them determine a sound’s direction, and their night vision is 10 times better than ours. An owl can rotate its head about 270 degrees (not all the way around, as is often believed), and the birds range in size from very small (the saw-whet may be only three ounces — no bigger than a robin) to hefty specimens such as the four-pound great horned, capable of catching a goose.

Female owls are usually larger than males.

Though the raptors rarely attack humans, exceptions include swooped-upon joggers at St. Edward State Park in Kenmore. Owls usually restrict their diet to smaller mammals such as rats and mice, and may eat several a day.

Humans are generally bystanders in an owl’s daily drama. At West Seattle’s Camp Long, for example, a landscape that draws great horned, screech, saw-whet and barred owls also lures the public for popular evening walks called “owl prowls.”

“Usually they [park visitors] are extremely excited,” says Jeanie Murphy-Ouellette, Camp Long naturalist. “Really respectful and in awe. It’s very awe-inspiring.”

The naturalist has herself encountered several owls, including sighting a tiny saw-whet that she describes as “all eyes,” boldly holding its perch in a park cedar tree as another observer sketched its picture.

Raptors on the roam

Autumn is a particularly good time to see owls in unlikely places, according to Woodland Park Zoo raptor keeper Tom Aversa, who finds an October owl at Fourth and Pike not completely out of character.

“Fall is when you’ll most likely see dispersing owls in odd habitats — usually young owls looking for food or habitat,” Aversa said. (May is another peak for activity, when owls are busy catching food for their young.) As the season turns to winter, diminished cover makes the birds more visible than at leafier times of year.

One thing is certain: If the urge to go owling on a cold fall or winter evening overcomes you, you’ll be in good company. Aaron Martin and a friend returned downtown at midnight, unable to resist checking whether the barred owl was still on its perch. It was.

Murphy-Ouellette admits to lost sleep on camping trips because of the birds, whose “mysterious, drawing call” resounds through the night landscape.

“There have been times I’ve just gotten right out of my tent to go find them,” she says.

Maria Dolan of Seattle is co-author with Kathryn True of “Nature in the City: Seattle” (The Mountaineers Books, 2003).