The other day "Atowhee" at Towheeblog had a pygmy owl interlude in Medford, Oregon, and added the species to his life list.
He writes, "My Christmas Count team was led by Dick Ashford but he and I were both new to this particular territory. His supremely good pygmy owl imitation netted us our only owl for the day: a mid-afternoon Western Pygmy Owl who ignored hundreds of scolding Robins to find the other calling owl. He came within a dozen feet of us. And stared us down as we slinked out of his territory." (Be sure to check out Atowhee's excellent Oregon and California birding blog.)
I've never heard a pygmy owl, but had a brief acquaintance with one back in the late 1950s. That was in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the days before computer games, cell phones, and "lame boy toys", when kids used to play in the woods.
For some unknown reason, my friend Marvin and I had decided to scale a sandstone cliff above the swimming hole in the San Lorenzo River. It wasn't particularly dangerous if you stayed on a narrow ledge. Half way across we wanted to celebrate our accomplishment and sat down on the ledge hoping some neighborhood kids would show up and see us there. It didn't happen.
I was getting bored and for some unknown reason felt compelled to throw a rock at a broken snag below. When the rock hit the trunk a small owl shot out and swooped up into a small Douglas fir at the edge of the cliff about 40 yards away.
We decided to get a closer look and made our way across the cliff to the Douglas fir. The owl was perched low and near the trunk. It seemed tame, and I decided to climb up on the opposite side of the trunk. It flew up a couple branches, but it didn't fly away.
At this point I asked Marvin to go home and get a length of green fishing line, a coat hanger, and a large paper grocery bag. He was back in a half hour, and we made a noose. The green fishing line had proven itself excellent lizard noosing material. I had to abandon my idea to use the straightened coat hanger as an extension to the noosing stick, because it was too hard to bend it around the stick.
I tied the noose to the stick, climbed a few yards up into the tree on the opposite side of the owl, and slowly raised the stick up to the birdl. It flew up a couple branches to a higher perch. On the next try I was able to lower the noose over its head, but the noose was too small. The owl shook it off and again flew to a higher branch.
I lowered the stick and opened the noose, then climbed higher, peeked around the trunk and tried again. Once more the same thing happened.
I realized the slip knot was too big, and no matter how slowly I had raised the stick the noose became smaller. This time I tightened the slip knot slightly and opened the noose as wide as possible. I knew it was my last chance and climbed very slowly. We were now almost halfway up the tree, maybe 40 feet up.
I raised the stick and watched the noose get smaller, but this time it seemed ample. The owl was as calm as before, but as I lowered it over its head it suddenly took off.
For a split second I thought it was gone, but then I saw it dangling from the noose. It had flown through the loop and was caught by one foot. I reeled in the catch. Back on the ground, we loosened the knot and dropped the owl in the paper bag.
Triumphant, we crossed the river and headed home. That Sunday my family drove back to San Francisco.
The pygmy owl was quite tame, sat on a perch in my room, and took meat from my fingers.
When I got home from school the following Tuesday, the window to my room was open and the owl was gone. My parents were tolerant of pets, but someone opened the window and the owl "flew the coop".
Years later I found out why. For some unknown reason, my grandfather didn't approve of captive owls.