The life of an owl is hectic. Hungry mates and babies insist on constant food deliveries. Making ends meet—read: finding lots of meadow voles—is a full-time job. And on top of familial demands, there are outside pressures, too: changing habitats, shrinking nesting sites, and disappearing prey.
To document the hardships and resilience of the 19 regular North American owl species, Seattle photographer Paul Bannick logged tens of thousands of hours camping, climbing trees, and braving frigid and scorching weather all over the country. His results can be seen in a new book, Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls, a vivid, informative, and rugged account of the magnificent birds of prey. Here are ten scenes from Bannick’s odyssey.
Dinner Time (above)
A male Great Gray Owl brings a gopher to his mate, who depends on him to hunt for the family while she keeps the nest warm and protected. During the month that the female owl spends incubating her eggs, she rarely leaves, instead sending out soft whoo-up calls to remind her mate that she’s hungry.
These three-week-old Long-eared Owl nestlings are nearly spilling out of their nest, but at least they're keeping each other toasty. The parents are busy making runs between the nest and the surrounding forest to keep the growing chicks satisfied and fed. Their meal of choice: rodents, with a side of more rodents.
Ears on the Prize
The scene might seem tranquil, but don’t be fooled: This puffed-up Great Gray Owl is listening carefully for prey, such as shrews and hares, rustling through the tall grass. A Great Gray Owl’s vigilance never wavers: When it’s not on the hunt, it’s on the lookout for threats from predators higher up the food chain.
Life as a fledgling Northern Pygmy-Owl requires a bit more bravery than usual. When the time comes, parents lure their young from the nest by dangling food out of reach. These tricks are designed to challenge owlets to climb, flutter, and fly to new heights, getting them prepped for life after the nest.
This sharp-eyed, short-winged Northern Hawk Owl earns its name for its speedy, diurnal hunting style that's more in line with hawks and falcons. By pulling their wings in close against their bodies, the raptors maximize their speeds and surprise unsuspecting voles and deer mice scampering across the boreal forest floor.
This Short-eared Owl's world has been turned upside down in recent decades. The ground-nesting species needs dense vegetation to conceal its nesting sites, and unfortunately, these grassland habitats have been disappearing in the United States. As a result, Short-eared Owl populations have been in decline.
Spotting a Snowy Owl in a snow storm is a rare and impressive sight. While the inclement weather might look harsh to people, on the Arctic tundra where this owl normally breeds, such wintry gales are common. Despite the white out, the bird has no problem keeping watch for prey—while also taking advantage of its superior camouflage.
A lanky Long-eared Owl in flight hides its trademark ear tufts, changing its usual surprised expression into one that’s a bit more fierce. The bird's elliptical wings give it extra lift and allow it to float through the air with ease.
A Brave Front
Young Long-eared Owls on the verge of independence start to learn intimidation techniques and other survival skills before leaving the nest around the age of four weeks. Unfortunately for this bird, it’s probably still a little too fuzzy to effectively terrorize its intended audience.
Great Gray Owl's aren't your typical backyard visitor. These gray giants spend most of their time in the northern mountains and boreal forests (there's a small population in California as well), but they sometimes turn up as winter visitors at farms and ranches.
Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls, by Paul Bannick, Mountaineer Books, 217 pages, $34.95. Buy it at Mountaineer Books.