Owl surprise

When I ducked into the Minnesota Trail’s black-bear viewing lodge Thursday morning, I expected to see only humans and bears, assuming the latter weren’t still asleep in their holding area. I did not expect to see a tiny owl, perched right there on the fingers of a Close Encounters team member, over by the lodge fireplace.

screech owl encounter

I knew the Close Encounters program (financed through Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment) was up and running and that zoo staffers would be hands-on with non-exhibit animals along the trails at designated times. But this tiny owl caught me off-guard, and I wanted to know his story. Ask a friendly zoo staffer, and you shall be told: He’s an Eastern screech owl named Rio, adopted first by a Texas facility after he fell far from his nest. He’s full-grown now and weighs only 7 or 8 ounces. Because he probably remembers his owl parents, his new blonde stand-in parent describes him as a “partial imprint” — he “knows he’s an owl” but still puts on an apparent mating display for her, tinged with aggression. You’d never know it to see him here, though; Rio maintained the same aura of motionless poise for the five or 10 minutes I spent admiring him.

Eastern screen owl close-upWe have Eastern screech owls in Minnesota, too, though they’re masters of daytime disguise — even when they’re not blending in against bear-lodge fireplace stone.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website cracks me up by describing the species as a “cosmopolitan owl,” meaning that these little guys thrive in suburban areas, which offer tree cover and minimal predators. They’re not endangered or rare, and despite their name, their range also covers the Plains states. Their call, which I’ve never heard in the wild, is described as a descending whinny or trill. At the zoo, Rio eats frozen mice and, for enrichment or extra fun, crickets and mealworms. When he’s had enough exposure to people, which happened sometime after I took my second photo of him, he hops off the hand and into his carrying crate, positioned next to the lodge fireplace for maximum warmth on a winter’s day. I hope he makes a return appearance sometime.