MISSOULA — Springtime brings lots of natural beauty to Montana and it also brings one of the best times of the year to see owls.
There are around 225 known species of owls in the world. They live on every continent except Antarctica. According to the State of Montana website, there are 14 species of owls in the Treasure State.
Right now, is one of the best times to see these owls as they raise their young across the state.
Owls are currently spending more time searching for food to bring back to their chicks which means they are going to be more visible now than other times of the year.
Like hawks and eagles, owls are birds of prey also known as raptors. This means they use sharp talons and bills to hunt and eat other animals.
Owls have four toes on each foot with two forward-facing toes and two backward-facing toes -- this toe arrangement is called being zygodactyl.
But, unlike most other zygodactyl birds, owls can actually move one of their back toes forward to help them grip and walk used either when holding prey or a branch.
Owls are fantastic hunters but aren't the best nest builders.
Many owls take advantage of the hard work performed by other animals, instead of building their nests from scratch.
Some owls, like Great Horned Owls, use vacant nests in trees or on cliffs that were built by hawks, crows, magpies, or other birds.
Plenty of owls simply nest in holes in trees. These can occur naturally but are often created by woodpeckers.
At this time in the nesting stages, owlets are starting to explore areas around the nest.
They usually leave the nest and hide in the surrounding vegetation or climb on nearby branches until they are ready to fly.
Those that nest on the ground, like Short Eared Owls, find cover in nearby grass or shrubs until they can fly.
This period of exploration is called branching or nest dispersal. When nestlings first gain the ability to fly, they are called fledglings.
Instead of ball-shaped eyeballs like humans, owls have tubular eyes that go far back into their skull.
This makes their eyes fixed in place so their famous ability to turn the head so freely compensates for an owls’ lack of ability to move their eyes around in their sockets.
So, what are some ways to find owls?
The day-flying owls like Short Eared owls are most likely to be out hunting from mid-afternoon in grasslands while they look for prey.
You can go look at the stars and listen for owls hooting in the night. Finding locations of nocturnal owls is possible if you listen for them at night.
You can then search areas where you’ve heard them, looking for holes in trees that could be nest-sites, and for pellets on the ground that would reveal a roosting spot.
Some owls frequently use the same nest-sites and have their favorite places to sit, so if you do find a site you may be able to see the owls there for many years.
But always remember to be mindful when searching, and never approach too closely.
Many owls die each year from eating rodents that have been poisoned, but many ranchers are installing owl nesting boxes in the hopes that owls will clean out pests like gophers and mice from their land.
This natural form of pest control is safer and cheaper than using poison, and it’s better for the owls too.