Have you ever wondered why animals look the way they do; why there are so many small brown birds; why a fawn has white splotches on its sides; why a zebra has black and white stripes? Nature has given each a coloration and shape to help them survive and produce future generations.
It’s amazing what you can see in nature if you listen carefully and look all around you. This lovely creature was spotted protecting her nest in an old tree on the ranch where the nature center is located. Notice how beautifully her coloring helps to camouflage her against the colors of the old wood.
This is a great horned owl. These majestic birds have the widest range of any owl species, ranging from Alaska and Canada to Patagonia in South America.
Naming these birds is easy. The “great” is because they can be up to two feet in height, with wing spans of up to five feet. The “horned” part is because of their ear tufts that look like horns. They are also known the tiger of the skies because they are so large and fierce. This owl is certainly at the top of its food chain!
As with other creatures this time of year, the owls are busy raising their young, nesting in tree holes, rock crevices, or even old squirrel nests. Owls select their mates through a ritual that includes hooting, bowing, and rubbing beaks. These youngsters have yet to grow into their final plumage that will help hide them in the woods during the day.
Did you know that these owls are the only animals that actually seek out and feed on skunks? Can you imagine that? Fortunately, there are other delicacies for owls to choose from such as other birds, mice, fish, snakes, lizards, rabbits and other small mammals they find out and about at night.
Like the screech and other owls, the great horned owls have amazing eyesight capable of spotting a tasty morsel even in the lowlight of the nigh time forest and meadows. The owl can turn its head a full 270 degrees without moving the rest of its body to help pinpoint its target. (Compare this to what us mere humans can do. Keeping your eyes still, see far can you turn your head to the right or left.)
If you spot a great horned owl tilting its head to the left, to the right, it is probably trying to find the source of a sound, and perhaps a little snack. Their hearing is far better than humans. Their ears are placed differently on their heads, with the right one usually higher than the left and at a different angle. This helps them quickly locate the source of a sound, above or below, left or right, in front or behind, close or far. (Think about how you hear sounds such as a bird in a tree, or your friends calling you to play. Do you tilt your head too?)
Go out early some morning or late in the evening and see if you can hear a great horned owl. You will know who, who, whooo that is!
Brownies braved a chilly April morning to visit the nature center to learn about entomology (the study of insects) and basic hiking. According to Phil Wyde, the nature center’s chief bug-guy, insects account for more than two-thirds of all known organisms and have been present on the earth in some shape or form for more than 400 million years.
The Brownies were not the least bit squeamish, finding bugs under logs and rocks, in the grasses along the trails, catching them in nets, and studying them thru magnifying glasses.
With the help of the nature center’s Hollis Zender, the girls created their own bugs, a walking stick (see photo below), and learned about how bugs have specialized mouth parts to allow them to pierce, chew, bite, suck, or sponge up their food.
For the hiking portion of the day, the girls learned how to be safe while out on the trails. This included what to pack in your backpack: plenty of water, first aid supplies, gorp to munch on, a trail map, flashlight, etc. and to make sure someone knows when and where they are going.
While hiking, the girls discovered old bones and talked with Billy Hutson, their guide, about how to determine what kind of animal it might have been, from turtles to armadillos, from deer to cows, from the hollow bones of birds to fish. All were nicely scrubbed clean thanks to our friendly bugs.
To top off the day, Arlene Pearce, our friend from the bird rehabilitation center, showed baby opossums whose mother had been killed by a car, and a screech owl with a back injury that she had nursed back to health. Unlike humans, the large eyes of owls have no muscles attached to move them. Instead, they have an extra vertebrae in their neck so they can move their head to find their prey. While the baby opossums were too young to release, Arlene let the Brownies help with the release of the screech owl.
At the end of the day, everyone was exhausted and all the girls had earned their badges. Congratulations ladies!
A new member of the nature center family arrived via cardboard box and was released at dusk to fly off into the trees and establish his new home. The screech owl is one of the smallest owls. Its call can sound like the whinny of a horse or a deep trill. Like other owls, they eat primarily birds and small mammals. They live mostly in wooded areas and nest in tree cavities. This screech owl has only one working eye. It had been hit by a car and suffered damage to both his eye and ear on the left side of his head.
This particular screech owl came to us courtesy of Arlene Pearce and her rehabilitation work with wild birds. Some have been hit by cars, found abandoned in their nests, attacked by family pets or even electrocuted from outdated electrical wiring. Most come to the center thanks to concerned citizens such as yourselves. Since 1999, she has mended countless wings, hand-fed fledglings and even raises mealworms to feed her patients. Working closely with local Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers, veterinarians and local ranchers, she treats and releases over 100 birds each year. In 2013, she rehabilitated and released 20 screech owls like ours.
Stay tuned as we will be releasing another screech owl when the girl scouts visit next month. We are looking forward to making Arlene and Richard’s rehabilitation work an on-going part of the nature center activities.