Fun with Bonnie and Clyde

Great Horned Owls (GHOW) are found all across North America – literally, they exist everywhere from the hot swampy areas of Florida to the deserts of the Southwest to the prairies and mountains of Canada. There is currently no concern for them in terms of declining populations. Just because there is no decline does not mean that the owls should not be monitored. Monitoring means that researchers can see when a decline does happen and they can ask why.

The setting sun on Bonnie.

In the 1970s many bird populations were wiped out due to the use of DDT. DDT was a pesticide and it was banned in 1972 after Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962 exposing the issues. It took a decade for change to happen but it did happen.

So the question then is, why in 2014 were birds dying in Michigan with levels of DDT poison so high in their brains that no one could believe the readings? Songbirds such as Robins, European Starlings, and bluebirds were dropping dead in people’s yards. DDT was not only found in the brains of the dead birds in enormous concentrations but it was also found in the worms that the birds ate. A professor at the University of Michigan looking into the phenomena found that the concentrations ranged from 155 to 1043 parts per million with the average being 552. The threshold for death is 30 parts per million. DDT persists in the soil and in the rivers. It thins the eggs of birds so that they break and cannot be incubated. It makes the birds sick and it is not a quick death but a slow painful one. The authorities in Michigan found that the Velsicol Chemical Corporation was responsible. Under their old name, Michigan Chemical, they manufactured pesticides. It is the area around their old plant where the soil, in 2014, was still saturated with the poison.

Today, the raptors – not the seed eating birds – have issues with various types of designer poisons for mice and rats. They are commonly called Rodenticides. In the United States, the name of one of the biggest companies manufacturing this poison is deConn. And, like when we want a tissue for a runny nose, many will ask for a ‘Kleenex’. Owls eat a lot of mice and rats. In fact, they are the absolute best and cheapest way to rid an area of these rodents. Someone could start a company, ‘Hire an Owl’.

And speaking of owls and mice, I have some great shots of Bonnie and Clyde for you tonight. And I have the answer to two questions sent to me by e-mail. I will incorporate those in the text. Thank you to those who wrote and asked – always happy to answer if I can or to help find the answer.

First of all, owls are noctural but like all other raptors they actually do a lot of hunting right at dusk and dawn. Owls do not see colour very well because nature provided them with sensitive dark-light rod cells instead of ones for differentiating colour. During the day, Clyde will sleep just like Bonnie, if she can. Clyde will not bring food to Bonnie during the bright light of day. But you might expect him to come, if prey is plentiful, right after dusk. Let us hope that none of the mice or rats that Clyde brings Bonnie have eaten any pesticides.

Dusk was at 6:39 pm in Newton, Kansas where the Bald Eagle Nest that Bonnie and Clyde are using is located. Between 6:55 and 8:04 pm, Bonnie made three trips off the nest. The first was at 6:55. She raises her head. Did she hear Clyde? She leaves the nest and returns at 7:03. That was eight minutes. She might have needed a bathroom break and she might have had something to eat.

At 7:21, we can see Clyde’s eyes. Clyde lands on a branch. Bonnie hears him.

Bonnie gets up. Clyde has brought her a mouse!

They do a quick exchange.

And Bonnie is back on the nest. It took a whole two minutes.

Bonnie takes another very short break from 7:57 to 8:04. Just like the first time she left this evening, the camera is fixed on the next so we cannot see what happens outside the frame. The temperature has really warmed up from the frigid minus degrees. It is 29 degrees F. The hunting might be a lot better because the mice will not be hunkered down with the cold. They will also be out looking for food while Clyde is looking for them!

Those beautiful big owl eyes are the reason that Clyde will be his busiest hunting within two hours of dusk and two hours of dawn. It is quite possible then that all three of Bonnie’s departures after dusk had to do with food deliveries and bathroom breaks together.

It is dawn, 6:27 am at the nest and Clyde has brought in his last mouse for the night. He arrives on his ‘regular’ branch. You should be able to see the mouse hanging out of his beak.

The pair have this all worked out. Bonnie and Clyde do some hoots and she flies up to the upper branch on the left.

Bonnie then flies up to grab the mouse from Clyde and within a blink that mouse becomes owl and she is back on her nest in two minutes. This couple is extremely efficient!

Besides hunting, Clyde’s other duty is to protect the territory of the nest and Bonnie. He will not be far away!

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Just a couple of quick observations for today and then something special at the end.

The little eaglets on the Southwest Florida nest at Fort Myers, E17 and E18 are itchy. E18 was preening 17 and then they both wake up in the night and start preening. You will see that their flight feathers are just starting to come in. (Note: The dark object is a piece of an armoured fish). Here are a few images of these two itchy characters:

E17 is preening E18
Flight and pin feathers make eagles itchy.

Over at the other eagle nest in NE Florida at St Augustine, little NE24 is getting its pin feathers, too. Sometimes these are called ‘blood’ feathers because they are filled with blood while they are growing. Some of you might remember that Hope, the oldest eaglet on Connie and Joe’s nest at Captiva, Florida died because she broke a blood feather and bled out. That was because of the rodenticide in the prey she had been fed. So blood feathers. Our new words for the day!

I am absolutely in love with this little eaglet. Maybe because it is all alone on that big nest without any siblings. But, at the same time, that is such a plus. There is no anxiety watching this nest. Gabby and Samson do a fine job taking care of this little one. And its eyes cleared up all on its own.

The soft glow of dusk is filtering through the trees in the swamp. NE24 has a nice crop before bed. You can see that the feathers are changing colour from white to grey. You can also see the pin feathers just starting to come in. Poor thing. It will not only have to deal with all those mosquitoes but now these things coming in!

Now for something just a little special. Most Bald Eagles do not start breeding until they are much older than five years even though they can at four to five years. In a nest in Minnesota supervised by the Department of Natural Resources, a four year old Bald Eagle male (called a sub adult) is going to get to see his first egg for the very first time. His beak is still a brown or amber colour instead of the bright yellow and he still retains some of the brown feathers mixed with the white on his head. It is thirteen minutes long – and no, he is not dirty. He is just a youngster. His eyes have not gotten light yet either. Enjoy!

Thank you again for joining with me to learn about the birds we all love so much. It is my pleasure to share them with you. Tomorrow we best check in on some Royal Albatross and what their satellite trackers are showing and we will also try and find Solly ——- and, of course, see what Bonnie and Clyde are up to. The weather patterns are shifting again and I am sad to say that the Bald Eagle Nest in New Jersey is once again covered with snow. This mom with three eggs under her never seems to catch a break.

Thank you to the streaming cams of Derek the Farmer, Duke Farms, SWFL Eagle Cam and D Pritchett Real Estate, NEFL Eagle Cam, and to Lady Hawk for making that great video of our young eagle dad.

Don’t mess with a Great Horned Owl named Bonnie

On a farm near Newton, Kansas, there is a tree. It has a Bald Eagle’s nest that, until a little over a week ago, belonged to a mated pair, Willie and Marie. It was ‘borrowed’ by a pair of Great Horned Owls, sometimes called Hoot Owls, that have been aptly named Bonnie and Clyde after the infamous bank robbers.

On 26 January 2021, the owls came to check out what appeared to be an unoccupied nest. This reminds me of when Daisy the Duck and her mate came to check on the WBSE nest in mid-December. Both have a look over the property to see if it is good for eggs and protection.

The owls decided that this would be the perfect spot to raise their family.

The next day the Bald Eagles come to check on their nest. Did they know that the owls had been there?

Something gave Willie and Marie concern. Normally they roost with a large group of eagles but that night, they chose to sleep on their nest.

In the middle of the night, a Great Horned Owl attacks them knocking one of the Bald Eagles from the nest. That was a game changer.

It wasn’t long til Bonnie, the GHOW, had laid her first egg right in the centre of the Bald Eagle’s nest.

In the image above, Bonnie, the owl, is on the nest. She has laid at least one egg. The norm is from one to five eggs. Great Horned Owls are absolutely fierce opponents as you can see from the confrontation that is taking place. In fact, Bonnie will defend her nest without hesitation. While most people will immediately think that owls are ‘cute’ and often ‘cuddly’ or ‘wise’ as in children’s story books, it is good to keep in mind that these are large raptors. They can easily kill, and do, all manner of falcons, Ospreys, as well as other owls. They are known to kill large prey by breaking their spines.

As with all other raptors, the female is the largest. Bonnie weighs, on average, 2 kg or 4.4 lbs. It is entirely possible that Bonnie’s mate, Clyde, weighs half what she does. Male GHOWs generally weight between 1 – 1.5 kilos or 2.2 – 3.3 lbs. Their wing span is about the same, measuring 1.2 metres or almost four feet. In comparison, a Bald Eagle has a wingspan of 1.8 – 2.3 metres or 5 ft 11 in – 7 ft 7 in. The average weight of an adult bald eagle is 6.35 kilograms or 14 lbs. In other words, the Bald Eagle is a lot larger than the Great Horned Owl. In the picture, it is hard to tell which of the raptors is, indeed, the largest. Had there been a fight between the two, both might have been injured. Thankfully, nothing has happened to date.

GHOWs have their young earlier than most other raptors. Generally, they lay their eggs and begin raising their young when the snow is on the ground. The Red Tail Hawks, on the other hand, do not normally lay their eggs until the third week in March, right about the beginning of spring. However, that does not seem to be the case with Bald Eagles. For example, the nest in Fort Myers Florida has eaglets that are twenty-six days old while E24 over at NE Florida, is nine days old. The Love Trio near Fulton, Illinois have laid their first egg on Valentine’s Day while other nests are ahead of them. It is unclear to me when this young mated Bald Eagle couple would have begun laying eggs on this nest. It seems to vary by geographical region and I presume normal climatic conditions. We know that this year in the US it is anything but normal now with the Polar Vortex taking over and causing severe winter storms.

I am left wondering about the Bald Eagles, Willie and Marie. What will they do for a nest? This GHOW has at least 21 more days til hatch. Those beautiful little owls aren’t going to immediately jump out of that nest and begin catching mice! No, they will branch (hop up to a close branch) when they are about six weeks old and will fledge taking short flights at seven weeks. That is, by my crude calculations, around the end of April or the beginning of May. Ah, those Bald Eagles aren’t going to wait that long to lay their eggs.

GHO chicks at 3 weeks of age. USFWS image.

These little fluffy owls are seriously cute with their big eyes. Not sure I would want to cuddle one thought unless it was a stuffy.

Adult GHOW and Juvenile, approximately 6 weeks old. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

In Canada, the GHOW is our second largest owl. The Snowy Owl is bigger.

There are GHOWs that live in a tree on a nearby golf course. On occasion, the owls come near to where I live. Indeed, last summer there was a huge commotion in the large trees in front of my house. Neighbours ran out to see what was going on. Everyone thought that the cute owl – it was a Great Horned – was being attacked by the crows. In fact, the owl had come to raid the crow’s nest. The crows had called in family and friends to help them move the owl along.

As I watched, the cheering section for the owl grew in size. Is it because owls are ‘wise’ or ‘cute and fluffy’ and Crows are black with sharp pointed beaks? I wondered about the impact of children’s literature and movies on the reactions of the onlookers to the avian behaviour. All manner of misconceptions have come to us through writers. One that really bothers me often is ‘fish do not feel pain’. I say that because many people get upset if, for example, White-Bellied Sea Eagles eat a Silver Gull because it has feathers but they don’t care at all if it brings a live fish onto the nest for the eaglets. What I have learned, most explicitly, is that birds are extremely intelligent. Their senses are more highly developed than humans and they share the same emotions that we have including mourning, joy, love, and intimidation.

In the course of six weeks, I have witnessed a Pacific Black Duck (our sweet little Daisy) make her nest in an unusual place, in a forest in the centre of a White-Bellied Sea Eagle nest. We will never know ‘why’ Daisy risked laying her eggs there and trying to incubate them to hatch but something motivated her to get her nest off the ground. Owls are often opportunistic. Their nests are not normally constructed year after year, twig after twig, like the eagles, for example. Did the owls lose their nest? Was their nest destroyed? Was the nest of the Bald Eagle just convenient for Bonnie and Clyde? This evening a Barred Owl attached Bonnie around 11:05pm. Bonnie was actually rolling her eggs when the owl came up from behind. You can see Bonnie trying to get her footing and the face of the attacker on the right. It is possible that owl has a nest close by or maybe it has its eyes on this prime piece of real estate. However, it would be a whole lot better if the smaller owl was ‘wise’ and didn’t try that move again. Bonnie just might be having a much bigger dinner than a mouse!

Barred Owl knocks Bonnie off balance while she turns her eggs.

That was not the drama that I was expecting. Sometimes these bird nests are better than anything being shown on the streaming stations on your telly! Happily no one was injured. Wonder what will happen tomorrow?

JUST A NOTE: IN THE WEE HOURS OF THE MORNING OF THE 18TH OF FEBRUARY WHEN IT WAS STILL DARK, AN OWL KNOCKED THE BALD EAGLE M15 OFF OF THE ATTIC WHERE IT WAS SLEEPING (IN A TREE ON THE PRITCHETT FARM) AND INTO THE NEST WITH HARRIET AND E17 AND E18. BONNIE IS A LARGE OWL SITTING ON THIS NEST IN KANSAS AND SHE IS A FORMIDABLE OPPONENT.

Thank you for joining me today. I am so glad that you stopped in. Stay safe and take care.

Thank you to Derek the Farmer for his streaming cam, the USFWS, and Wikimedia Commons.