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News Detective: Meeting an owl

Kate has a close encounter of the spotted kind.

I was standing with a group of journalists in a forest, listening to Lowell Diller talk about dusky-footed woodrats, when something caught a reporter's eye.

Isn't that a spotted owl, he asked, pointing up to a tree branch. Sure enough, gazing down at us with huge dark eyes, there sat a northern spotted owl. We quickly lost interest in the woodrats, the preferred meal of northern California spotted owls, and gathered around where the owl was perched.

We soon spied three more owls—another adult and two very fuzzy juveniles. The adult male was new to the area, so Diller wanted to tag it. Our group, on a fellowship program with the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources (www.ijnr.org/), was more than willing to watch and help out.

To lure the owl, Diller had a reporter jiggle a cat toy on the end of a string, just enough to distract the owl. Then he came in from the side and slipped a leash around the owl's neck. It's a tricky business, he said, because you don't want the owl flying off and hurting itself.

Diller skillfully pulled the owl to him and held it tight, grasping its feet in one hand and stroking its forehead with the other. The owl appeared to love that and relaxed completely. Any time it got antsy, all Diller had to do was stroke its forehead, and it quieted down. Diller took some measurements of the bird, then put a tag on its foot. All the while, the three other birds watched with interest.

To make sure the owls were left with a good opinion of people, Diller also gave them a little treat. He had brought along a box of unsuspecting white mice, which we held up, one at a time, on a big stick.

The adult owls swooped in silently to grab the squeaking mice. They ate some of the mice and brought others back to their fuzzy offspring.

A spotted owl holds on tight to a snack—a little white mouse—from Diller.

During the fellowship, we got to do some pretty amazing things, such as canoeing, hiking through redwood forests, searching for salamanders in a stream, visiting the site of the Biscuit Fire that burned half a million acres, taking a smelly tour of a fish-processing factory, and talking to all sorts of people with all kinds of opinions.

But getting to see the spotted owls up close was a high point for me. I was awed by the sight of these birds and amazed at how much they seemed to trust people. I hope they'll be around for people to admire for a long time to come.

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