Reflections in Nature: Dead starling mystery solved

The mystery of the dead birds on the road has been solved. I’ve received six letters and one phone call about the dead starlings along Route 15 near Allenwood.

Almost everyone had their own idea about what could have occurred to kill more than 100 starlings; however, Sandy Tofts, who was visiting her parents, Grace and Lewis La Forme, who live where the incident occurred, called with the answer. Sandy said they heard a loud noise and, believing an accident had happened, they went to the door to find that a flock (murmuration) of starlings had flown into a large truck.

The driver of the truck stopped and got out, appearing quite puzzled as to what had just occurred.

Thanks to all who responded.

After Christmas, I went deer hunting during muzzleloading season. About 15 inches of snow covered the ground, the temperature registered down in the low 20s and the wind was blowing hard.

With these conditions, I saw no wildlife, not even a squirrel scampering about. While stomping my feet to try to warm my toes, I decided I certainly wasn’t as smart as the wildlife.

With this in mind, I left the stand and headed for my vehicle. Just as I reached for the door handle, I heard the familiar six-note hooting of a great-horned owl. I stopped to listen for a second owl to answer but heard nothing.

By January, the great-horned owls have paired up and, by February, the female will be sitting on a nest containing two or three eggs. Because the eggs would freeze if the female left the nest, the male hunts for food to feed the female and himself.

The common name of the great-horned owl came from it being one of our largest owls and also the fact that the tufts of feathers on top of its head appear as horns.

Its scientific name is Bubo virginianus. The genus name “Bubo” is Latin and means “eagle owl” and the species name “virginianus” also is Latin and means “of Virginia,” where the first specimens were collected.

Sharing the woods with the great-horned owl is the barred owl, which also is a large owl that has a wingspan of 3 1/2 feet.

The barred owl’s common name comes from the horizontal barred upper breast and the prominent vertical brown streaks down its belly. The barred owl is the only owl that has brown eyes but no ear tufts. It’s scientific name is Strix varia. The genus name “Strix” comes from the Greek word “strizo,” meaning “to screech,” and the species name “varia” is Latin and means “variegated.”

Pennsylvania’s smallest owl is the saw-whet owl, which has a wingspan of 7 to 8 inches and weighs only about 3 ounces. The common name comes from the owl’s call that closely resembles the sound of a man filing a large mill saw.

Its scientific name is Aegolius acadicus. The genus name comes from the Greek word “aigolios,” meaning “a kind of owl,” and the species name is Latin, meaning “funeral.” At one time, the calling of an owl was considered an ill omen and thought to be the “wailing of the dead.”

Other owls in Pennsylvania include the:

Short-eared owl, which visits Pennsylvania mainly during the winter months;

Long-eared owl, which appears as a smaller version of the great-horned owl, except for its streaked belly and having closer-set horns;

Snowy owl, which is an irregular visitor to the state, usually showing up from November to January;

Barn owl, a long-legged, light-colored bird with a white-heart shaped face. Due to that shape, it often is called the monkey-faced owl.

Barn owls, which are in a separate family from all other owls, nest in barns, church towers and other old buildings. Its common name comes from its nesting habit.

Unlike other owls that have a hooting-type call, the barn owl makes long, drawn-out whistles and loud hisses.

One of our smaller owls is the screech owl, which has ear tufts. There are two color phases: red and gray, with the gray phase more prevalent in our area.

Although the bird’s common name comes from its call, it is not a screech but rather a soft, mournful whinny. The scientific name is Otus asio, with the genus name Latin, meaning “horned owl” and the species name, which also is Latin, was Pliney’s name for “long-eared owl.”

Just hearing the great-horned owl’s call as I was climbing in my truck that evening made my hunting trip a success.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. He has published several books about his experiences. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 153 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.