I had a great lesson this spring in bird identification: don’t assume that you’ve correctly identified the bird you are observing, just because it looks like and acts like a familiar bird. Here’s what happened… A friend called me one Saturday morning and said she had an immature Barred Owl on the lawn in her very developed suburban Oklahoma City neighborhood. Well it’s possible, I thought, and of course I wasn’t going to pass up a chance to see an owl… any owl… so I headed her way. When I got there, the owl was hiding in a 4″ pipe that served as a drain for her neighbor’s french drain system. (Top photo) Although several inches back from the opening, it was visible with binoculars, I could tell that the bird was smaller than an immature Barred Owl and had yellow eyes, which ruled out the Barred completely. So what owl might be seen in a residential neighborhood, sitting in a pipe, and have yellow eyes? It was one of those “looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck moments.” And so I proclaimed with great authority that this was an Eastern Screech-Owl and told her how fortunate she was to have one hanging around — perhaps it was an immature because, as my friend reported, it didn’t have great flying skills.
The little owl never came out of the drain while I was there so I made the ID based on a few characteristics. I made another trip to the neighborhood the next evening and this time the owl was sitting along the curb, in front of the drain pipe (second photo). I was excited to get better pictures and the little owl even stayed still while I drove within a few feet of it. I’d never seen a Screech-Owl sitting in the road but I really hadn’t seen too many of them at all so this qualified as a great Screech-Owl opportunity!
The bird disappeared the next day so I sent a photo to my friend (she’s a big fan of my photos, bless her!) and we had fun remembering the cute owl. It was only days later that I wondered why the owl had almost bare legs. Did immature Screech-Owls have only slight feathering on the legs? I didn’t have a clue that my assumption on the bird ID was wrong! I just kept “knowin’ what I knew.”
Because I like to list the photos in my Photo Gallery by age, gender and plumage when possible, I sent a photo to my very patient bird ID mentor, Jim Arterburn asking if I was correct in noticing that immature Screech-Owls have somewhat legs. Was I
surprised — and was he gracious — when he wrote back saying I was wrong — it was a Burrowing Owl, a rare sighting for Oklahoma City, especially in a
residential area, and that I needed to document it for the Oklahoma Bird Records Committee.
I’ve seen and photographed Burrowing Owls in prairie dog villages at theWichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. But I don’t think I’m going to be the birder who’s going to see something different — so I just didn’t allow myself to think outside of that too-often-clichéd box to think that I was seeing an unexpected bird. If I hadn’t contacted Jim, I’d still be happy with my screech-owl sighting but missed the opportunity to get hit between the eyes with the reality that in bird identification, IT ISN’T ALWAYS WHAT IT SEEMS.
PS. You’d think I’d learned my lesson? Not so– I just learned that a swan that showed up a few weeks ago at Lake Hefner isn’t a “run of the mill Mute Swan” even though I’ve photographed it several times and thought I’d confirmed it in Sibley’s (after all it was tame and that’s what tame swans at city lakes are). No! It’s a Trumpeter Swan… I have no idea what a tame Trumpeter is doing at our lake but there you have it, another lesson ’cause I’m still making assumptions based on what I expect the bird to be. Will I ever learn?!!