A Hoot and a Howl, an Ode to the Owls of Claremont

Multiple nights during my time at the Claremont Colleges, I’ve heard an unlikely sound from high above. It is not the whizzing of an airplane, churning of a helicopter, or even buzzing of a drone, but rather the mark of a different kind of aviator. It is the hooting of owls, mainly in Marston Quad at Pomona College. I haven’t fully believed it and my eyes have yet to backup my ears but there is no doubt the sound is the call of the peculiar birds. 

It is a little bit surprising to hear owls on campus. There are certainly areas around the 5Cs that offer some spatial respite from the concrete jungle that surrounds us but they don’t jump out as so conducive for such wild and unconditioned creatures. 

And even if owls had found a suitable amount of space, one would think the routine late-night music, incessant train whistles and general noise of 21st-century people would have sent them off-campus by now, or at least to Scripps College. Marston Quad seems to do it for them though. 

The 5Cs actually have a lot of wildlife. In addition to owls, you find the usual suspects—squirrels, hummingbirds, rabbits, crows; those that make you look twice—raccoons, lizards, frogs; and those you probably shouldn’t stick around to look at—coyotes. Of all these, however, none can quite match the intrigue of owls. Residing high above the fray, they seem to deserve special respect and probably know some things about the colleges that the rest of us don’t. 

I have wondered what the life is like for the campus owls. Are they fully nocturnal? Do they ever leave their tree homes for more than a brief spin around the area? What are these homes like? They certainly are the smartest creatures around but does that mean they don't associate with the lesser birds? And what about their late-night hooting? Are they communicating particularly strong feelings about anything?

Looking to find out more, I asked Pomona Biology Professor Nina Karnovsky about our quiet neighbors above. She said that they are likely Great Horned Owls or Barn Owls, although Barn Owls prefer Pomona's Frary clock tower. Great Horned Owls are so named because of the feather tufts on their head that look like horns. Contrary to owl lore, these birds can not rotate their head in a complete circle, although they can still cover an impressive 270 degrees.

They are natural hunters and good ones at that. Among other skills, they can fly silently, hear tiny prey from far away and essentially see in the dark. Their preferred dinner is rodents,and they don't often fail to come up empty when they are hungry. Right now, the Great Horned Owl, the second largest owl species in North America, is approaching breeding season, so they are sure to be busy.

The existence of a few owls on our campus is a nice surprise but it also uncovers a sadder truth. This area probably used to be home to a great many owls. The development of the town and the colleges undoubtedly led to habitat destruction, and we are now merely left with the refugees. There is no guarantee the remaining Owls will not suffer the same fate as their ancestors but they deserve a chance to make it. It really is special to have them on campus and we would lose much more than a few smart birds. 

Students at each college don’t pay enough attention to their consortium peers, let alone other living beings on campus. It’s easy to forget we are in the company of different-sized dwellers who have been here for much longer than the colleges. Owls do a good job of keeping a low-profile and probably are not looking to accompany us to class (although maybe to the dining hall), but they shouldn’t be forgotten. The next time you're passing through Marston Quad, or any of the tree-lined spaces around, embrace the silence and maybe you’ll here a real hoot.

Jack Carroll CM '18 is from New York but could get used to Southern California.

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