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Fauna Series No. 3







Faunal Position

Life Zones







Fauna of the National Parks — No. 3
Birds and Mammals of Mount McKinley National Park
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Bubo virginianus algistus [OBERHOLSER]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A large dark-colored owl with well developed ear tufts or "horns" and finely vermiculated feathers. Length, 22 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—Good field characters for this bird are its large size, its ear tufts, and its deep call note—"Who! who! ta whoo !"

DISTRIBUTION.—Horned owls are found in wooded sections over most of North America. Algistus is found in northwestern Alaska from Mount McKinley to Kotzebue Sound. In the McKinley region, horned owls have been seen at Wonder Lake, Toklat River, and at park headquarters.

HABITS.—Horned owls are rare in the McKinley region. Mr. and Mrs. John Anderson preserved a flat skin from an owl killed at Wonder Lake. This specimen has been compared with the series of horned owl skins in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and was found to be between subarcticus and algistus but nearer the latter. Charles Sheldon (1930, p. 168) reports in 1907, that, "whenever rabbit tracks in the snow were observed, the following night or the next, the hoots of a great horned owl nearby would be heard. Then no fresh tracks could be found in the woods and none leading from them." This was near his winter camp on the Toklat River.

Not far from park headquarters at 8:30 o'clock on the evening of July 28, 1932, a large horned owl flew across the road within 50 feet of us. It was in plain sight. On this date the days were getting noticeably shorter so that there was a real feeling of evening by 9 o'clock and by 8:30 it was dusky enough for the owl to be out hunting.

In our experience, the St. Michael horned owl is a rare resident in Mount McKinley National Park. It is probable that its presence is revealed by its hooting, more frequently in winter than in summer.

Nyctea nyctea [LINNAEUS]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A large white owl without ear tufts or horns, but usually with a few bold broad dark bars on the body. These bars do not involve the face. Length, 25 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—It is a large, white owl with a round head and it lacks horns.

DISTRIBUTION.—The breeding grounds of this large bird, which is known to the Eskimos by the name, "Ook-pick", are Arctic America and Siberia.

HABITS.—Charles Sheldon (1930, p. 229) reports that on December 2, 1907, at his caribou camp on the rolling plain near the north boundary of McKinley Park, he saw "forty or fifty snowy owls that afternoon—some very dark a few very white. All were wild . . . and sat motionless, either on a hummock or a surface elevation, their heads constantly revolving as they watched for mice." Sheldon observed snowy owls all through the winter and following spring, the last observance mentioned being April 26, 1908.

Surnia ulula caparoch [MULLER]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—An owl of medium size, without horns; but it has a long tail and a hawklike appearance. Length, 15 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.— The long tail; the regular barring of the under parts; the direct, rapid, shrikelike flight, and this owl's habit of hunting its prey chiefly in the daytime from a perch in the open, on the top of a tree, are all good field characters.

DISTRIBUTION.—It breeds from northwestern Alaska and Hudson Strait to southern British Columbia. It is generally distributed over the wooded sections of the Mount McKinley region.

HABITS.—In 1926, which was a good mouse year, we found hawk owls abundant in the McKinley region. Our first encounter with this species was on June 8, 1926, when Wright found a bob-tailed young hawk owl sitting unconcernedly on the ground in the middle of the road. On June 10, while we were hunting in the spruce woods near Savage River in mid-afternoon, I heard a hawk owl calling nearby. The owl was soon discovered perched in the top of a tall dead spruce. It gave its characteristic call from the tree several times. This call note, which is given frequently when two of the owls are hunting together, is a long-drawn-out screech, with a sharply accentuated higher ending. The first part of the call lasts nearly one second and the accented ending endures for about one-tenth of a second. The call is well represented by the words, "all right"; the "all" is long and drawn out, and the "right" is given explosively in a rising pitch—"all-l-l-l-l right."

young American hawk owl
Figure 39.—A young American hawk owl, half grown.
Photograph taken June 13, 1926, Savage River. M. V. Z. No. 5055.

The hawk owls that we encountered bunted in the middle of the day in bright sunlight, rather than at night. The young hawk owl (fig. 39), which Wright discovered in the road, was kept alive and reared by us. It was quiet at night, but it was exceedingly active in the daytime, particularly when the sun was shining.

The reaction of this owlet to various noises was interesting. When we made a slight mouselike noise by scratching, it was all attention, scanning the ground in all directions. However, if a person stood close to the bird and called out sharply, the bird would shake its head violently each time the sharp noise was made, showing signs of evident discomfort. We concluded that the owl's sensitive ears are attuned to catch slight sounds and that the bird suffers pain from the strong vibrations of loud or nearby sounds.

Near Double Mountain on July 22, 1926, we encountered a family of four fully grown young hawk owls at midforenoon. Although they were as large as their parents and seemingly able to take care of themselves, these young owls sat around in the tops of spruce trees and waited and called for their parents to bring them food.

In 2 days—June 12 and 13, 1926—we actually counted 39 hawk owls. Up to the time the young were out of the nest, about June 5, these birds were rarely seen. Then suddenly they were found everywhere in the spruce woods. After the young owls were able to hunt their own food they became quiet and less noticeable, and we saw them but rarely.

In 1932, when I went over this same territory, I hunted high and low for hawk owls and was unable to find a single one during the entire summer. Charles Sheldon (1930, p. 280) saw one hawk owl on the Toklat near the mouth of the Clearwater on January 26, 1908. This was the one owl of this species observed during the entire year. Hawk owls may be common or rare in the McKinley region according to the abundance or absence of mice.

Asio flammeus flammeus [PONTOPPIDAN]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A medium sized owl with two small ear tufts close together rising from the center of the forehead. The general color of this bird is buffy, distinctly striped below with brown. The birds of this species from Mount McKinley National Park and the Arctic coast of Alaska are very light-colored. Length, 15.5 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—This owl, which is found on the open marshes and tundra, may be identified by its light color, medium size and small, centrally located ear tufts.

DISTRIBUTION.—It breeds in northern Alaska from Mount McKinley to Point Barrow, east to Greenland, and south to California.

HABITS.—The short-eared owls inhabit the open tundra. The first arrivals in the spring were noted by Charles Sheldon at Toklat on May 1, 1908. He saw several owls of this species which were all flying high. By May 4, Sheldon reports that many mated pairs of short-eared owls were present, flying back and forth low over the tundra catching lemmings. At other times these owls soared high in the heavens with wings extended for a few moments, then they would flap them again and utter a rapid series of low hoots. Every now and then, while soaring aloft, one of the owls would dive down for a distance of 20 feet, flapping its wings quickly and making a peculiar barking call that sounded like the ki-yi of a small dog. These nuptial, or mating, performances were noted by us many times in 1926.

On July 16, 1926, on a stretch of wet tundra near Copper Mountain, I flushed a male short-eared owl that was sitting at the base of a hummock watching a mouse burrow. This bird was collected. It proved to be a very light-colored individual, similar in color to those I had observed at Point Barrow in 1914.

In 1932, careful watch was kept for short-eared owls in the identical areas and places that they had been found in 1908 and 1926, but not a single one could be found. Like the hawk owl, the presence of nesting pairs in the McKinley region seems directly dependent upon the abundance of meadow mice and lemmings.

Cryptoglaux Junerea richardsoni [BONAPARTE]

GENERAL APPEARANCE.—A small, round-headed, brown and white owl about the size of a small screech owl, but without "horns." Length, 10 inches.

IDENTIFICATION.—It is larger than the saw-whet owl, and the light-colored facial disk of the Richardson's owl contrasts sharply with the surrounding dark feathers of the head, which in the saw-whet owl blend softly with the head feathers.

DISTRIBUTION.—It breeds from the limit of trees in central Alaska, and northern Yukon and Mackenzie south to British Columbia. It breeds also in northern Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and the Magdalen Islands.

HABITS.—Our only record for this species in Mount McKinley National Park is of "a male killed [by Sheldon at Toklat] on May 4, 1908" (Sheldon, 1930, p. 401). From our own experience and that of others living in the McKinley region, we believe that this owl is one of the rarest raptorial species to be found there.

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