Fern Hollow's Owl Prowls gaining in popularity
Those who take a night hike in Sewickley Heights Borough Park might hear what seems like a strange question echoing through the trees.
“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Whoo, whoo!”
April Claus, Fern Hollow Nature Center director of environmental education, said those who hear the question shouldn't feel compelled to answer.
It's just the barred owl making his presence known.
Claus, who took over the center's Owl Prowls, said historically, there have been about eight different owls found in Pennsylvania.
In this area, the eastern screech, the barred and the great horned owls are most prevalent.
The screech is the smallest and is eaten by the other two owls. The great horned owl is the largest around and can grow to be up to 20 to 23 inches in length with a wingspan of nearly 5 feet. It preys on animals such as skunks.
Claus said during Fern Hollow's Owl Prowl in December, the group heard three eastern screech owls calling back after just a few minutes of calling to them.
“We were not able to see them, but they got very close, and we could hear them very clearly. I whistled, and they answered, then they got closer with each call until they figured out we were not really owls,” she said.
That was a more successful prowl than usual, she said, because this year, Fern Hollow decided to do things a little differently.
“We would normally do an owl program here and then head out to ‘prowl' for owls in Sewickley Heights Park only one time. We always ended up with too many people, so this year, we separated the live owl programs from the actual prowls,” she said.
“We only want 15 people on the prowl, because it becomes too noisy. Last year we had about 80 people come, and we ended up not seeing or hearing any owls, I suspect it was because we were too noisy.”
Two more Owl Prowls are scheduled, Saturday and Jan. 18, but both are booked. Fern Hollow is taking names for a waiting list.
Claus said she used recordings and her own voice to call the owls. She said the most exciting part is seeing the group's reaction when the first owl answers back.
“Even more exciting is when an owl flies down to get a closer look at the group, which happened several years ago with a screech owl. We were standing in a circle, and it flew right through the middle of us. Everyone gasped in amazement.”
In addition to the Owl Prowls, two “Pennsylvania's Amazing Owls” educational programs also were held at the center. They included live owls from WildBird Recovery and a presentation from Bob VanNewkirk, a National Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania volunteer naturalist, who ran the center's Owl Prowls for the past four years. He also does “Birds of Prey” presentations mainly for school groups and leads bird walks for the Three Rivers Birding Club.
VanNewkirk of Ross Township said he thinks people always have been interested in owls.
“Owls have always played a role in literature, mythology, superstitions, customs and in folk lore. Recently, Harry Potter had a snowy owl that he used as a messenger. Fred Rogers developed the puppet character, X, the Owl. People of all ages are willing to attend an owl prowl on a cold, winter night with the hope of seeing or hearing an owl. Since owls are nocturnal and most people are diurnal, we do not often get chances to see them,” he said.
Perhaps what makes owls so intriguing is that they are unique among birds of prey, he noted.
“Their large eyes, round faces, muted-colored feathers and vocalizations are appealing.
“Some small owls like the eastern screech owl, the northern saw-whet owl, and barred owl even seem cute and cuddly, especially to children.”
He said the owl programs provide people with an opportunity to use their senses, to feel the chill of the night air, to smell the pine scent or musky odor of the woods, to hear the barking, screaming, trilling or hooting of a live owl, and if lucky, to see one of these nighttime creatures.
“That's all part of the thrill of the prowl. No computer simulation or book can provide that.
For more information, call Fern Hollow Nature Center at 412-741-7536.
Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or firstname.lastname@example.org.