Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Many Snowy Owls back again this winter

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird migration, Bird sightings, Minnesota birding sites Updated: January 2, 2015 - 12:26 PM

Many Snowy Owls are being reported in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Wisconsin again this winter, although it’s nothing like last year. Not yet, anyway.


Project SnowStorm, the owl tracking effort that began last winter, is back in business, its blog on-line and available (http://www.projectsnowstorm.org). The blog is keeping track of current sightings.


One recent post was written by Jean-Francois Therrien, senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. He’s been studying Snowy Owls in the Arctic for years with Laval University in Quebec. His report documents a 2014 owl breeding season that surpasses the 2013 season believed to result in the mass movement south last year. 


The study Therrien is doing is on Bylot Island in Nunavut, Canada, above Baffin Island. The core study area covers 39 square miles. Previous record number of nests found there was 13, in 2004. This past summer the team found 20, a high density.  


Expanding the count area brought the total nests found to 116, far more than the previous high count of 33, from 2010 in the same area. Lemming density was lower this past summer than in 2013, however, so it is expected that fewer young Snowy Owls fledged. “Nonetheless,” Therrien wrote in the blog, “we are expecting to see some Snowies this winter, but we’ll have to wait to see if the numbers get close to what we had last winter.”


It also was reported that some of the owls equipped with geolocaters last winter are beginning to move south into cell-phone range. This is important because the data collected on the devices, strapped to the owls’ backs as they spent their summer in their Arctic breeding territory, record and store the information, downloading it when the birds get within range of a cell-phone tower. Analysis of the information so far available is underway. 


Owls coming down this season also will be tagged when possible. The study continues. Stay tuned.

(A good place to check on numbers and locations of birds reported recently in Minnesota is on eBird, a Cornell Lab site that lists reports it receives from birders. Find it at http://ebird.org/ebird/subnational1/US-MN/activity?yr=all&m=

Review -- Sharing apartment with an owl

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird books Updated: January 5, 2015 - 7:40 AM

The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, Martin Windrow, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2014, 302 pages, bibliography, illustrations by Christa Hook.

Tawny Owls, birds of Great Britain larger than screech-owls and smaller than Barred Owls could be thought of as interesting but hardly common pets. Who wouldn’t want to get to know an owl up close and personal? And then again, how might that go?

British writer Martin Windrow kept such an owl, a Tawny that is better described as companion than pet. Windrow and Mumble, his name for the bird, lived together for 15 years. Mumble spent most of that time sharing, for at least the best part of each day, Windrow’s London apartment.

Mumble perched on Windrow’s shoulders, sometimes on his head, tore his newspaper to shreds as it was being read, groomed Windrow’s beard, nibbled at his ears, shared nuzzlings, and soiled his furniture.

The book combines the natural history of the bird as observed and interpreted from behavior in this domestic setting. Mumbles sometimes responds to the outer, natural world, when owl calls penetrate the apartment or a pigeon is seen through a window. Mostly, though, Mumbles expresses her owlness with fascinating behavior as an indoor bird.

Mumbles was raised by a breeder, never knowing freedom beyond walls. Well, except for twice when the owl managed to put itself outdoors, free to go, returning each time to what was familiar. The bird responded to its nature in unnatural conditions, giving the author and us insight into what the life or a wild bird might be. 

Windrow is a writer by profession, and a good one. This is not the sappy or sad story that tales of captive birds can be. You will know much about this individual owl and owls in general after reading of Windrow’s adventures. He shared his life in an unusual way, and shares that with us as an entertaining and informative read.

Mumbles dies at the end of the story, as birds of her age will do. Windrow misses her enormously. Readers will miss her, too.

The mention of Caesar in the title, by the way, refers to a plaster bust that Windrow kept in his apartment, a favorite roosting place for Mumbles when she wasn’t atop a door or exploring the cavities behind books on shelves.


Review -- The Magic of Birds

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird books Updated: February 25, 2015 - 12:50 PM

The Magic of Birds, Celia Fisher, University of Chicago Press, 2014, 160 pages, heavily illustrated, index.


North America’s history of bird art began in 1585 with drawings by Englishman John White. He accompanied Richard Grenville on an expedition to what is now North Carolina. White painted a Bald Eagle, Sandhill Crane, Common Loon, Blue Jay, and a vivid Northern Cardinal. His work was followed by other Englishmen, and eventually by John James Audubon who set the standard for future bird art.


Amerindians used bird images as decoration or in pictograph stories found here and there, far predating European efforts.


But our continent has no history of birds as art objects that begins to match that of Europe, the Orient, India, and the near East. 


Author Celia Fisher recounts a wide history of birds in art in this beautiful book. She explores bird art as it was used to illustrate creation and diversity, as use of birds in hunting and as caged companions was captured in art, and as bird art more and more decorated even household items. 


Several books published in the last couple of years have explored the way bird representations have become part of our official and religious and everyday lives. This one adds more information and more beauty to that effort.



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