Without its feathers, an owl would look like the ugliest bird in the world, combining the big beak, crooked neck and sloping brow of a naked buzzard with the posture of a dumpy chicken.
But dressed in full plumage, the owl stands among the most handsome and beguiling of nature's creatures, in a splendid fluffy coat mixing formal white, black and grey in elegant patterns. Among Alaska owl species, the feathers can extend all the way down their legs to their talons, like fur mukluks.
Feathers also transform the bird's gawky head into something beautifully symmetrical -- handsomely horned or rounded and soft like a teddy bear or Hello Kitty doll, arguably the most attractive face in birddom. A dainty beak tip peeks through the placid face. Large eyes, set in deep-dished circles of feathers, look even more enormous than they are, profoundly studious, a direct stare as unwavering as a statue.
Probably as a result of that penetrating gaze, human lore has associated owls with knowing all that can be known. The owl was the companion of Minerva, wisest of the Roman gods, and confidant of wizards, a dependable guide to youthful seekers and saviors like King Arthur, Harry Potter and Christopher Robin. Artists have often celebrated both its good looks and allegorical status.
The fact is, owls aren't any smarter than other raptors. But they are impressively adaptive. Over 200 species are found worldwide in climates ranging from deserts to sea coasts and jungles to tundra. Steve Lewis, a raptor biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says 13 of those species are found in Alaska, most on a year-round basis. The "Alaska Owlmanac," an Alaska Department of Fish and Game publication, lists five considered "common" in the Anchorage area, with occasional sightings of visitors from outside the area.
The above authorities gave us more owl facts:
Big eyes, silent feathers
Alaska owls range in size from the tiny northern pygmy, as big as a robin or maybe a little smaller, Lewis says, to the great horned and great grey varieties, with wingspans approaching four feet. Despite that span, they only weigh about three pounds. The snowy owl of the arctic is actually heavier: four pounds.
Most owls hunt by night, when their prey can't see them. They're capable of seeing in near-total darkness, though they can also see perfectly well in daylight. Their eyes really are gigantic; if people had eyes proportionate to those of a great horned owl, each orb would be the size of a grapefruit.
But they can't move their eyes without moving their entire heads -- hence that stoic stare. The eyes are fixed in their sockets to enhance binocular vision that improves depth perception. To look around, they must rotate their whole heads, which is easier for them since they have twice as many neck vertebrae as a giraffe.
Their hearing as good as their vision, capable of picking up high-frequency pitches inaudible to our ears. Those feathery disks around their big eyes also amplify noises and help the owl target its prey with surgical accuracy.
Most owls have wing feathers that slide against each other in silence. Their shape means the birds fly and glide without the noise that accompanies other birds. The critters that make up most of an owl's diet never hear their doom approaching.
Their primary diet, at least for smaller birds, is rodents like voles and shrews, though they will also take on a meal as big as themselves, like a hare or a duck. The powerful talons hold the prey in place while the beak -- which is a lot bigger than it looks on a resting owl -- does the killing.
The long daylight in Alaska's summer limits prime hunting time. Above the Arctic Circle, snowy owls hunt by day.
The night hunters, like Anchorage's forest owls, "are pretty secretive," Lewis says. People don't often see them because they fly silently in the dark. "In the day, great greys sit on a branch and look like they're not there." The northern hawk owl is easier to spot, since it's sometimes out and about during the day and likes to perch on the tops of trees.
To do a census of owls, scientists don't even try to look for them. "The way you survey for owls is an auditory survey," Lewis says. "It's purely listening. We identify the species by their call, determine the site and extrapolate."
Each species has a distinct voice, described in the "Owlmanac." The boreal owl is "a soft trill" on a single pitch. Great greys have a series of low single or double hoots. Northern hawks have a song consisting of "a prolonged series of short, rolling, sharp whistles" lasting about 10 seconds. Great horned owls have a five-note deep "hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo" but are also known to sing.
Anchorage owlists can start listening for the call of the great horned this month as the birds begin their mating season. Prime listening time for other species starts in January or February and lasts into spring, though some can be heard throughout the year. "They're saying, 'This is my territory. I'm holding this space,'" says Lewis. The call is to warn other birds, not people, though the larger owls can potentially be aggressive, "like a goshawk is aggressive," he adds.
Owls in galleries
Artists tend to depict not the aggressive but the aesthetic side of owls, perched or soaring. The biggest depiction of an owl is Ned Smyth's 20-by-24-foot mosaic on the Seventh Avenue side of the Anchorage Museum, somewhat obscured by the columns at that entrance.
Smyth sees the owl as the "guardian" of the museum, according to the museum website. "In some cultures, the owl symbolizes death; in others, the owl symbolizes wisdom and is the creature that brings knowledge to the world." The heart-shaped face on the image, titled "Intruder," strongly resembles a barn owl, a species not found anywhere in Alaska.
2 Friends Gallery (341 E. Benson Blvd.) is one of several shops in town where owl art is prominently displayed, particularly in December. "Most of our Christmas decorations this year are woodland animals," said a gallery employee. The theme ties into 2 Friends' "charity of the month," the Alaska Zoo. (Each month, the gallery gives a portion of sales to a different nonprofit group.) At the First Friday opening on Dec. 6, zoo personnel were on hand with a snowy owl to greet customers. On the walls and shelves, one might have noticed owl forms made of wood, feathers, ceramic and ivory.
At Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop (1343 G St.), artist Kevin Crowley has a show of avian art that prominently features owls. One of the pictures is of a horned owl getting mobbed by crows. "It's based on my first-ever 'bird moment,'" he says. "I was 17, walking in the woods by my parents' house, when I saw this huge owl being chased between the trees by a flock of crows. I was hooked; I've been a bird lover ever since."
Another, showing a great grey perched on a tree, was seen by him while skiing in Kincaid Park a couple of years ago.
And another is a bright oil print, somewhat unexpected from this artist, who is known for more monochromatic woodblock prints and lithographs, as well as tattoo art. It's a vibrantly colorful view of a bird going from his stoic yard statue position to flight. Crowley has titled it "Flared."
There's a story behind the color, he says. When veteran Alaska artist Scott McDaniels passed away last year, his daughter gave some of his remaining supplies to Crowley. McDaniels was particularly well known for landscapes and traditional Alaska scenes done in oil, but he seldom if ever painted wildlife.
"I'm not much of a painter," Crowley says. "But I thinned the paints out to the consistency I wanted and used them to make this four-step reduction woodcut.
"I guess I should change the name to 'Scott McDaniel's Owl.'"
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
The Alaska Owlmanac can be ordered from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game by calling 465-4190 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. An online version of the publication is also available here.
By MIKE DUNHAM