The Northern hawk-owl is an owl, but doesn’t exactly fit the owl mold.
One of these little understood creatures has been seen just north of Hutchinson, Minn. This is a noteworthy southerly visit for this resident of boreal forest. A rare nester in northern Minnesota, this species occasionally moves south, most likely in search of food. Almost no winter hawk-owl ever chooses a location as convenient for birders as Hutchinson, a quick drive west from the Twin Cities.
Hawk-owls have the hyphenated name because of the way they look and act. This is a small owl, about crow size. Most owls are nocturnal. This one hunts both day and night.
It has the pointed wings and tail of an accipiter, the falcon-like hawks. The hawk-owl has direct and fast flight, swooping to attack, like its namesake.
These birds lack the asymmetrical ear placement that characterizes owls. Your ears match left to right, or should. Owl ears are slightly offset. This facilitates the audio triangulation that owls use to locate unseen prey.
While hawk-owls can hunt by ear, they depend more on eyesight. Manitoba ornithologist James Duncan wrote that they can see prey up to 900 yards away. That’s 2,600 feet, half a mile. We’ll assume what they are seeing at that distance are the rabbits and game birds they occasionally eat.
More common in their diet are smaller mammals — voles mostly, and mice and shrews. I’m impressed with their vision. I’d be even more impressed if it was a six-inch vole being watched at half a mile. And maybe it is.
My wife and I drove to Hutchinson to see that hawk-owl. We were on Tagus Avenue in McLeod County when we saw what every birder on the chase hopes to see. Not the bird. We saw a man standing along side the road watching what we were looking for.
The hawk-owl was atop a power pole, its vantage point as it watched for prey. It would choose a new pole now and then. It made two hunting forays to the ground during our visit, both false alarms.
Typical of its species, this bird was tolerant of people. We sat in the car and watched it from across a very busy county road. The hum of cars and trucks passing within 30 feet of the bird seemed to mean nothing.
To support itself here, in winter, the hawk-owl needs about 1½ ounces of food each day. This measurement was made of a captive owl. I think it’s safe to assume that the activity of a wild bird would require more food.
Meadow voles, common food for hawk-owls, on average weigh an ounce or two. Two voles, then, make a meal. Two white-footed mice, common here, would also suffice. If the bird kills a surplus of rodents, it will cache the prey for consumption as needed.
Hawk-owls are among the least-studied North American bird species, according to Duncan. (In 2003 he authored the book “Owls of the World: Their Lives, Behavior, and Survival.”)
He describes owls generally as among the world’s least understood creatures. You can ascribe this to their nocturnal habits, and thin distribution. The hawk-owl then has the distinction of being one of the least known of the least understood.
This perky bird is fun to watch. Most owls appear stoic, an occasional head swivel or eye blink all you can expect from a perched bird. Hawk-owls snap their heads left and right and backward frequently; they are alert.
When they think they see something of interest, they lean into the view. Our owl did this several times, stretching itself toward the supposed target like a dog on point.
We enjoyed our visit with the Hutchinson bird. It’s nice to find a bird that more or less ignores you, allowing for leisurely observation — from a warm car.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.