A Funny Little Owl

Pronghorn are perhaps the most graceful animal native to the high desert country of Central and Eastern Oregon. Golden Eagles are the most majestic, Greater Sage-Grouse the most emblematic.

And Burrowing Owls? They’re the funniest.

Five Burrowing Owls, Floridana, Florida. by Travelwayoflife,  CC BY-SA 2.0

Five Burrowing Owls, Floridana, Florida. by Travelwayoflife, CC BY-SA 2.0

Let us never overlook the fact that we’re talking about owls who live in dark underground burrows. Not for them the trees that most other birds prefer. No, they move into holes in the ground excavated by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, skunks, and in our area, badgers.

The owls dig with their beaks and make dirt fly with their feet, reshaping the old burrows to their liking and decorating them with cow manure, feathers, grass, and whatever else strikes their fancy (the manure is thought to attract insects for eating and might mask the owls' scent from predators).

The oddest of owls

Burrowing Owls’ predilection for the subterranean is not their only oddity. They also fly during the day as well as at night. And they don’t hoot; they coo (and warble, cluck, and scream). When threatened, they mimic the threatening hiss of a rattlesnake.

More unusual still are their legs. Imagine yourself as the designer of Burrowing Owls, holding a clump of brown clay in your hands. First, you shape the body to be about the size of a bulky American Robin—which is to say a quite small owl. But then you find yourself with lots of excess clay. What to do? And so you roll the clay into two cigars, each maybe four inches long, and attach them as legs—very, very long and very, very not-owl-like legs. Add some bloomer-like white feathers at the tops of the legs, and you’ve got yourself a Burrowing Owl.

Those long legs are a smart adaptation that allows Burrowing Owls to stand tall like curious meerkats, peering this way and that across the broad expanses of grasslands and sagebrush country where they live. They also use their feathered stilts to speed across the ground chasing prey, their bodies thrust forward like a tourist on a Segway.

It’s actually not their long legs that make Burrowing Owls such a social media darling, subject of hundreds of memes and videos—or at least it's not solely their legs. It’s also their white unibrow, which, when lowered, makes them look comically offended and, when raised, suggests the wide-eyed curiosity of a puppy.

Add to their expressive unibrow their body bobs, 180-degree head tilts to the left and right, and communal nature (so you can see groups of them bobbing and tilting at once), and you start to understand why just about everyone loves a Burrowing Owl.

Adoration isn’t enough

Unfortunately, despite our affection for them, we’re not doing a great job of protecting these owls. It used to be you could get your truck’s grill cleaned by nesting Burrowing Owls while you used the facilities at the Brothers Oasis (the rest area in the tiny town of Brothers, Ore.).

But those owls, and countless others across the country, have been killed by people who were trying to kill something else—ground squirrels, in the case of the mating pair in Brothers. The sad irony is that Burrowing Owls are on the same side as landowners, regularly eating their fill of ground squirrels, pocket gophers, and other rodents.

Today, Burrowing Owls are considered “birds of conservation concern” both federally and in Oregon and seven other Western states. It’s not only poisoning and pesticides that’s causing their declining populations but also (and perhaps mostly) habitat loss. They need flat, open territories—shrub-steppe and grasslands, ideally, or agricultural fields and pastures. In Oregon, they also need badgers around to build burrows.

Which brings us to public lands, which provide the natural habitat that Burrowing Owls and just about every other bird needs. Deepening protections of the wild lands of southeast Oregon, for instance, would help these owls and hundreds of other species. So would installation of artificial nest burrows and the addition of more habitat protection programs throughout Central and Eastern Oregon.

There’s nothing funny about the dangers facing Burrowing Owls, but the good news is that through the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and other like-minded organizations, we can take action to ensure these odd little owls are still out there for a long time to come, cooing and hissing, bobbing and head-tilting, burrowing and bringing us joy.

Species Spotlight: Curlleaf Mountain-Mahogany

Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany seeds and tails.

Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany seeds and tails.

I wrote this blog about one of my favorite trees for the Oregon Natural Desert Association. ONDA is a local nonprofit that's absolutely tireless in their efforts to protect and defend the high desert of Central and Eastern Oregon.

You can view the story on ONDA's site—here. It's the first of a five-part series spotlighting species that depend on the habitats ONDA works to protect.

And here's the blog, in case you'd rather not make that extra click.

Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany Trees live their lives on a different timescale than ours, so it helps to slow ourselves down to fully appreciate them. Certainly a shrubby little tree like curlleaf mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) isn't going to catch our eye if we're racing past along the trail. But take time for a closer look, and you'll probably be adding this one to your list of favorite trees in Central Oregon.

On the topic of timescales, consider that few of us will celebrate our 100th birthday, while at that age the slow-growing mountain-mahogany has barely begun. The tree doesn't reach its full height until about the century mark, and from there it can go on living for at least another 1,200 years. Such a long lifespan is especially remarkable given that the tree grows in some of our most inhospitable conditions: at elevation, often in drought conditions, and on highly exposed rocky ridges and buttes.

One key to the mountain-mahogany's long life is that it's a nitrogen fixer like peas and alders, which means that at least some individuals have bacteria-filled nodules on their roots that convert nitrogen into a usable, water-soluble form-basically, they manufacture their own fertilizer. That can help the trees survive harsh growing conditions, and it's also been shown to support the growth and vitality of the grasses and wildflowers that grow near them.

But let's get back to us out on the trail, slowing down to appreciate mountain-mahogany. If it's spring, stop first and listen for the hum of activity. Although the tree is mostly pollinated by the wind, it's also popular with a host of buzzing pollinators, including lots of native bees.

Step even closer to smell the tiny whitish-yellow trumpet flowers-they offer up one of the sweetest aromas you'll find on any of our native trees or shrubs. You can also see the stamens (male reproductive parts) sticking out well past the petals, like tiny arms with fistfuls of pollen that they're offering to the wind.

On warm summer days, scoop up and crush a handful of the inches-deep drifts of orange and rust-colored leaves that have fallen under the trees, and inhale deeply. Sometimes the leaves are too old or dried out and you won't smell much, but oh, when you get it just right-it's such a joy to discover a new scent (rather like a sweet tobacco) in an unexpected place, from a tree that few people even notice.

Late summer is the best time for simply looking at mountain-mahoganies because they'll be covered in seeds with one- to three-inch curly white tails trailing behind (the genus name, Cercocarpus, means "tailed fruit"). When the wind blows a seed from the tree, the feathery streamer helps it fly a little farther. Eventually the seed settles on the ground, with the streamer still attached and spiraled like a pig's tail. When it rains or gets humid enough, the spiral unwinds, effectively drilling the seed into the ground so it can germinate in the spring.

You can test this amazing process for yourself: Wet one of the wispy streamers and place it in your palm, then watch as it slowly straightens before your eyes.

To see (and smell and touch and listen to) curlleaf mountain-mahogany, head to Pine Mountain, the Dry River Canyon, or lots of other public lands that ONDA is working to protect.

Yep, It's Okay to Laugh

Nature is funny.

Which is not to suggest that we have any shortage of very serious, heartrending concerns that we must discuss and confront. That includes nature-related issues like climate change, species extinctions, pollinator declines, and habitat loss, and it most certainly also includes the human-related tragedies that took our breaths away this past week.

Still, nature is funny. And surely those crises only make it more poignant and important for us to revel in the beauty, wonder, and diversity of the natural world. At the very least doing so provides a respite from the world's turmoil; at best, it reminds us of our better angels and the great good that fills this world.

Really, is there any better response to the threats facing the natural world than to laugh and clown around as Katya Spiecker did when a Great Arctic butterfly seemed to mistake her for its host plant?

Black Bear. Photo: Jim Anderson

Black Bear. Photo: Jim Anderson

Black bears. Photo:  Alison Hardenburgh

Black bears. Photo: Alison Hardenburgh

And how else should we respond when a bear sticks out its tongue at us? Or looks like it might be peeing on its cub?

Should we pretend it's not humorous at all that a squirrel can grab a cone, spread its "wings," and soar through the air like it just don't care?

Northern flying squirrel. Photo: Alex Badyaev

Northern flying squirrel. Photo: Alex Badyaev

What about when we look around our towns and trails right now and see the vibrant reds, purples, yellows, and other colors of native wildflowers: Should we not smile at the grand design of this little world of ours? And when one of those flowers looks like a cow’s head, and another like a long stick with elephant heads shooting out in all directions—what then? Aren't we somehow duty-bound to admire and laugh at nature's wondrous oddities?

Steer's head. Photo:  Susan Berger

Steer's head. Photo: Susan Berger

elephant's head lousewort. photo:  M.A. Willson

elephant's head lousewort. photo: M.A. Willson

The fact that there exists a big, slow, tree-climbing rodent with 30,000 quills—is that not funny in and of itself? What about when this so-called poky rabbit appears to flirt with us, yellow teeth be damned?

porcupine. photo:  jon nelson

porcupine. photo: jon nelson

And when a Red-winged Blackbird's very survival appears to depend on the way the wind blows, surely a little mirth is in order?

female red-winged blackbird. Photo:  ALice doggett

female red-winged blackbird. Photo: ALice doggett

Should I go on? Because I could. Along with funny photos (please post your own)—we all have funny nature stories. The mouse that jumped on Mom and made her squeal. The horror and regret on the face of a kid who swallowed a chokecherry. The sight of an eagle swooping down to steal the trout right off the line (heard that one just the other day).

When I’m out hiking, I see people laughing and pointing and having a grand ol’ time. Scientific research shows that being in nature is healthy; it helps us relax; it makes us feel good. Those studies seem to be chipping away at the edge of the real story: that we crave wild nature so profoundly because it is our beginning and our end, the very essence of who and what we are as animals on this earth.

Now, I know, seeing the humor in nature won’t erase climate change or end racism, or save our thousands of endangered species. But it can remind us how much we love the living world—and why it’s worth preserving that world for the young ones of this generation and those to come.

Great Horned Owlet. Photo:  Sue Dougherty

Great Horned Owlet. Photo: Sue Dougherty

About My 70 Co-Conspirators

There’s a thin line between an ambitious project and an impossible one, and two years ago when I started writing my nature guide about Central Oregon plants and animals, I was on the wrong side of that line.

Ron Halvorson also contributed gorgeous photos like this one of mule's ears (Wyethia amplexicaulis).

Ron Halvorson also contributed gorgeous photos like this one of mule's ears (Wyethia amplexicaulis).

The idea seemed simple enough: I wanted to write the nature guide I’d always wanted to read. It would explain, in jargon-free language, how to identify the area’s plants and animals. It’d also tell folks exactly where to find species—not just in “riparian areas,” but at which specific parks and trails. And it’d be a fun read, full of information and stories that would make readers laugh and help them connect with the species they see along the trail.

That was the idea, but carrying it out alone was impossible. I’m a writer, not a professional naturalist. Like every other Oregonian, I know a thing or two about the outdoors and the plants and animals we have here in Central Oregon, but I couldn’t possibly describe hundreds of species, tell you where to find them, and provide local insights. Not in one lifetime.

Oh, and let’s not forget the photos: Nature guides are all about the photos. To identify birds, wildflowers, and other species, you have to see them. And to make the book appealing, the photos need to be in full color and of professional quality. I could write all the fancy prose I wanted; if the photos didn’t exist or weren’t engaging, nobody would pick up the book.

Did I mention I’m not a photographer either?

Clearly, I needed help. Lots and lots of help. So I started making cold-calls and sending out pleading emails. The first photographer I spoke with asked dozens of questions and talked with me for an hour, then said he wouldn’t donate any photos. And the worst part was that his decision was perfectly understandable—he’s a professional, his time and equipment is expensive, and how could he be sure the book would be as high-quality as his photos? It made sense, but it was also a potentially devastating blow. What if everyone saw things the same way? I couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to be involved, but I also couldn’t create the book without their help.

Thankfully most of the photographers I spoke with saw things through a different lens (so to speak). Soon after that first refusal, I ran into Sunriver photographer John Williams on a Deschutes Land Trust hike, and he didn’t hesitate to offer up hundreds of his gorgeous photos, more than 60 of which eventually ended up in the book.

Then came more photographers. Greg Burke, Bruce Jackson, Mike Putnam—all well-known, professional photographers—each agreed to donate some of their photos. Ditto M.A. Willson, Kevin Smith, Alice Doggett, Susan Berger, Kim Elton, Jon Nelson, Chuck Gates, Tom Lawler, Carolyn Waissman … and more than 30 other photographers, most of them based in Central Oregon.

Yes, some mentioned that having their photos in my book would be good publicity, but my sense is that they also believed in the cause. You don’t get up at four in the morning to set up your camera and capture the light slanting just right across a field of wildflowers if you don’t have a deep and abiding love for the natural environment—one you want to share with others.

As more and more photographers signed on, I still had the problem of creating and editing the content. Over many months, I read dozens of articles and books so I could write with some knowledge about every species. But I still needed the help of local naturalists.

Here, I have to say I did not hear a single no. If anything, I’ve found that if you ask a naturalist—and I’m talking about college professors, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife employees, birders, botanists, foresters, and more—about a species they’re interested in, you’re liable to learn far more than would fit in any nature guide. These are experts who have spent decades thinking about, observing, researching, and writing about specific flora and fauna, as well as how it all works together. If anything, they seemed relieved to have a non-expert who was so deeply interested in learning from them.

In all, more than 30 naturalists contributed to the book. Along with providing information, stories, and anecdotes, several reviewed every word that I wrote on specific topics. For instance, Ron Halvorson, who spent over 30 years with the Bureau of Land Management, reviewed more than a hundred pages of copy about trees, shrubs, bunchgrasses, and wildflowers. And he didn’t just go through it once—I lost count, but probably he reviewed every section at least five times. That would explain why I exchanged over 250 emails with him over six months.

Another example: I cold-called Alan St. John, who literally wrote the book on Central Oregon amphibians and reptiles. Within minutes, we were swapping stories about the challenges of writing books—already his humility and generosity were showing through, as he’s a skilled and established writer of local books, and indeed his Oregon’s Dry Side is the best book available about central and eastern Oregon.

Fast-forward a couple months, and Alan had provided all the amphibian and reptile photos I needed for the book, as well as details about where to find each one. And he reviewed and painstakingly corrected every mistake I made. Fast-forward a few more months, and Al and his wife and I were sharing dinner at Spork on Bend’s west side. Such is the beauty of working in what’s still a relatively small community.

When I started The Nature of Bend, I thought of it as my love letter to Central Oregon. Two years later, I am humbled to say “my book” is “our book,” and it’s a love letter to the people as well as the plants and animals of this area. It’s a beautiful guide to the life of this region, created through the combined efforts of dozens of people who have proven that Central Oregon is richer in far more than just its flora and fauna.