By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
A pair of great horned owls has moved into downtown Havre, shaking up some animals, serenading residents, and intriguing workers at the Hill County Courthouse.
Rick Ricci, Hill County buildings manager, said Thursday he first saw one of the owls in February, and that the pair is nesting in a tree near the courthouse.
"She came and built her nest and turned the crows that used to be in there out," said Ricci, referring to a group of about six crows that used to make a racket every morning outside the courthouse.
"In particular, crows and owls do not get along. Don't ask me why," said Graham Taylor, regional wildlife manager for the Great Falls region of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "Crows will mob - if you will - attack a great horned owl. I guess they must see it as a threat."
Taylor said the owls are not dangerous to people, but that they are territorial and people should not try to climb the tree to see the nest.
Ricci said that in the 10 years he has been building manager at the courthouse, he has never had a family of large birds move in.
He has only seen both owls together once, but on most warm days he sees the larger of the two owls - the female - roosting in a tree on the boulevard between the sidewalk and the street.
The horn-like tufts of feathers sticking above her head distinguishes her as a great horned owl. The species is not endangered or threatened, the FWP Web site said.
Jim Knight, an Extension wildlife specialist and professor at Montana State University-Bozeman, said the birds are not at risk living in town, and that if people just go about their business, the owls will thrive.
"I would say if they would just go about their normal activity, that owl is probably going to be very happy," he said.
"Every couple days you'll hear someone saying, 'The owl's out there,'" said Hill County auditor Kathy Olson. "We've got an urbanized owl - she's got good taste."
Having owls in town is not uncommon, Knight said, but noticing them is.
"Owls are very often present and we don't know it. They're sitting in a tree and it's dark out and we don't even know they're there," he said. They start out watching cars and people from a distance, and when nobody bothers them, they come closer.
"It's just the nature of their stealthiness that makes it easy for them to get used to us, because we don't even know they're there," he said.
Knight said food probably drew the owl to town, as well as structures that shelter them from the elements.
"Quite often in urban areas there are rodents running around, there are small birds," he said, which makes it easier for the owls to feed their young.
He said great horned owls usually frequent areas along rivers, particularly where there are a lot of ledges for them to nest on.
Some area residents say they hear the owls most mornings hooting just before and after dawn.
Jennie Hanson, who lives in the 300 block of Fifth Street, said that for the last few weeks she's been hearing them after 6:30 a.m., when she gets up.
"I enjoy it," she said. "I like to hear the birds in the morning."
Kyle Bergren, who lives in the 500 block of Second Avenue, said he's heard hooting every morning since he came back from college in Bozeman a week ago, but has not seen the owls.
"I assumed it was an owl because it had that characteristic hoot," Bergren said.
Taylor said the hooting is helping the owls define their territory.
"They're listening for adjacent owls to determine who's in the neighborhood and who shouldn't be, for that matter. They're spacing themselves out. That's how they communicate their presence," he said.
Across the street from Bergren, resident Roger Holt said that about two months ago he and his family began seeing a great horned owl perching on trees and telephone poles near their house. When they hooted at the owl, it would hoot back, he said.
When Holt was cutting wood with a chain saw in the alley behind his house this spring, the owl apparently took offense.
"The owl would fly over to the telephone pole ... and scream his head off until I shut the saw off," Holt said.
The owls apparently chased off a group of crows living in a nearby tree, and he said he has also noticed fewer cats in the area.
"Usually we've got a lot of cats around here. We sure haven't seen any," Holt said.
Lincoln Holt, Roger Holt's son, said he was walking on Fourth Avenue two weeks ago and saw several squirrels ripped in half.
Owls are not dainty eaters. Their normal prey, according to the FWP Web site, are "small and medium-sized mammals and birds."
Knight said that can include ducks, crows, and other owls. In fact, the only danger the owls pose to residents, he said, is to their sensibilities.
"People might see them catching something that they might be offended by," Knight said, adding that a small cat could fall prey to an owl.
Their normal hunting hours are early morning and late evening, Taylor said. The size of the owls' territory depends on the abundance of prey, he said, and could be as much as a mile or two in radius.
From examining the pellets regurgitated by the owls, Ricci said, he thinks they are eating small birds.
The pigeons and crows that usually come to the courthouse have left since the owls arrived, but Ricci isn't complaining. The droppings left by pigeons and crows are acidic and eat at the building facade, he said, and the pigeons used to roost in the cooling tower on the roof. Some building owners put plastic owls on their roofs to prevent that, Ricci said, but now the courthouse has the real thing.
Not everyone is happy to see the crows gone. Hill County Justice of the Peace Terry Stoppa said everyone else in the courthouse hates the noisy crows, but not him.
"I love that cah-cah-cah," said Stoppa, whose second-floor window faces the trees where the owls often roost. "I miss them."
Not that he minds having the owls around either.
"It's kind of neat having them around, I think," he said, describing them as "conversation pieces" that have been the subject of a lot of talk around the courthouse recently.
And the pair of owls raises another intriguing prospect, Stoppa said: owlets.
"I've never seen baby owls before. That'd be kind of neat," he said.
Great horned owls usually have three or four eggs in a clutch, Knight said.
If there are young, they would be hatched by now, Taylor said, but would not yet be venturing outside the nest.
Sometime this fall the young owls will drift away from their parents and establish another nest in the surrounding area, he said.