Photo by Jim Peterson
Photo by Jim Peterson

The inspiration to create community during quarantine and taste freedom while sheltering in place winged its way onto a block in northwest Evanston in the guise of a magnificent pair of great horned owls. The birds moved into the neighborhood, became a family and continue to lift the spirits of residents weary of fending off the COVID-19 pandemic.

People first noticed the two adult owls this winter. More than once, Jim Petersen caught a glimpse of a slow-moving shadow in horizontal flight across his yard. In late January, he heard back-and-forth hooting that sent him to the Internet. He found a match in the courtship and mating calls great horned (aka hoot) owls use to establish their territory before breeding season. About the same time Bill Handel, across the street, thought he saw the pair mating.

No one witnessed the next phase, when the birds nested and laid their eggs. The curious did learn that rather than build their own nests, great horned owls, like other owls, occupy the deserted nests of other birds. Not only is the great horned owl one of the most adaptable birds in terms of habitat, but it also nests in a wider variety of sites than any other bird in the Americas.

These are birds of imposing size, as much as 25 inches tall and weighing an average 3.5 pounds for a female and 2.7 pounds for a male. Great horned owls lay one to five eggs in any month but most often between February and April. They lay them not all at once but “in staggered sequence,” Mr. Petersen says, and then incubate them for 30 to 37 days. The babies, when they hatch, are the size of newborn chickens.

It was early April when Mr. Petersen spotted two owls huddled together in a big oak in his back yard. Downy and gray and not yet exhibiting the ear tufts that give them their name, the two babies were soon joined by a third. The first two were usually seen perched wing to wing – perhaps staying close to ward off the frigid temperatures of early spring, Mr. Petersen guessed.

The owls begged to be photographed. For the first time since owning a smart phone, Mr. Petersen found its camera inadequate. So he dusted off his 35mm Nikon and telephoto lens. When it proved impossible to keep the camera steady with such a long lens, he bought a Big Boy tripod.

Jim Petersen was hooked. And so commenced his pictorial documentation of the babies’ life.

He watched them flapping their wings, moving tree by tree along what he began to see as a “tree highway.” Though ready to try at six weeks, the young would not be competent flyers till they were 10 to 12 weeks old.

Meanwhile, he says, his next-door neighbors had seen the owlets, too. One had wandered into their garage; another was walking in the pachysandra beneath the elm in the Petersen front yard.  That seemed strange; Mr. Petersen later learned that young owls must walk to strengthen their legs. Those legs – and the four talons on each foot – are the owls’ deadly weapons.  The crushing power of a great horned owl’s talons is equal to 200-500 pounds per square inch – 10 times stronger than the grip of a human hand. Once the talons sink into a prey’s back, Wikipedia notes, most are killed instantly.

Residents of this block are not the only people interested in the owl family. “Other birders started coming,” Mr. Petersen says, some who have followed the monogamous pair around northwest Evanston for at least seven years.

Wielding binoculars, the experienced birders added their wisdom to the collective knowledge accumulating in the neighborhood. Suddenly, the street was full of naturalists who knew that an owl’s eyes do not move in their sockets, but the 14 vertebrae in its neck (twice the seven humans have) allow the owl to rotate its head 270 degrees. They are familiar with the fact that asymmetrical ear holes and the concave facial discs that funnel sounds to the ears make the owl’s hearing more acute than its vision.

One birder filled Mr. Petersen in on the 3- to 4-inch cylindrical bundles owls regurgitate. Owl pellets consist of undigested bones, teeth and fur. Great horned owls swallow most prey whole, and the parts that would be damaging to the birds’ digestive system move to the gizzard. There they are ground up and compressed. The resulting pellet is in the way of the next meal, so the owl must cough it up. It is possible to reconstruct an entire mouse by dissecting a pellet, the birder told Mr. Petersen.

But some prey are just too big to swallow. Jan Liten found a severed rabbit head on her patio and next to it, a rabbit foot. Kelli Handel saw a “stick” drop from a tree and later realized it was the backbone of a squirrel. What she likes is the idea that great horned owls prey on nuisance skunks. Others hope they cull the excessive number of chipmunks and rabbits.

One fine day, Ms. Handel, Ms. Liten and Allison LaFramboise had a 6 p.m. drink together sitting 6 feet apart, and everyone wanted to talk about the owls. “They are wonderful to observe,” Ms. Liten says.

She and Ms. Handel have a closer view of the owls now that the birds have moved a block west. Observation has honed their understanding of the birds. Though great horned owls, like other owls, are usually nocturnal, they occasionally hunt in daylight. Most of the time, the mother and her three babies roost during the day, scarcely moving. But at dusk, they “become more active,” Ms. Handel says. “The babies scream – they’re hungry,” and the mother brings them food. “The babies are getting more adventurous,” Ms. Handel says.

Only one individual has mentioned seeing five birds. A typical male helps incubate the eggs and feed the young for a couple weeks before retreating to a favorite roost near the nest.

So many people are now walking the alley to catch site of the block’s celebrities Ms. Liten jokes that she has to remember to put on “my good robe” in the morning. An elementary school girl on the block has named the owls and is said to be writing a book about them. And the neighbor whose evergreen tree is the current favorite roost is welcoming visitors into his yard for a better look. “He’s a docent,” Ms. Liten says.

But for Jim Petersen, the owls are more than entertainment. “They are one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever had from the world,” he says, calling them “powerful, beautiful, stunning life.”