Notes from William Brewster: November Owls

A black and white illustration of an American Long-eared Owl. The owl has two long feather tufts that are raised, resembling ears.
Illustration on an American Long-eared Owl, from 'Birdcraft', New York: Macmillan Co., 1897. See volume on BHL.

Modern scientists usually try to minimize their presence when studying wild animal behaviors, but William Brewster’s approach was often up-close. In an almost mischievous experimental spirit, Brewster liked to interact with animals to see how they would respond to him. 

These days we’re discouraged (for many good reasons) from interfering with wild animals, but at the time, Brewster’s impromptu experiments gathered insight, raised new questions, and brought more joy to his work. Mixed in with the pages and pages of species lists and weather observations, these animal encounters can be fun to read because they’re relatable, with a sort of timeless quality to them, and bring some of the naturalist’s personality to life. 

In keeping with the season, here’s one of Brewster's woodland animal encounters that took place in late November of 1897, in Concord, Mass. 

A rare piece of good fortune fell to my lot as I was on my way back to the cabin this evening. It was about five o'clock and twilight was fast deepening although the afterglow in the west cast a strong light on the larger open spaces. It was perfectly still the wind having long since died away. 

I was following the wood road that leads around the south end of Davis's Hill and had nearly reached the brook when an Owl glided close past me flying just above the tops of the young oaks, & quickly disappearing in the gloom against a background of pines. 

I gave a few low squeaks when it quickly reappeared & passed and repassed low over my head a dozen times or more finally pitching sharply upward and alighting on a dead, upright prong of one of the larger pines that stand on the edge of the brook. Up to this time I had taken it for a Short-ear but putting my glass on it I saw at once that it was a Long-eared Owl.

I looked at it for several minutes and then squeaked again. It left its perch at once and came directly towards me but before it reached me another and much larger bird of the same species suddenly appeared directly over my head and literally within reach of my hand. 

Then, to my amazement, it poised for several seconds on loosely beating wings not two feet from and directly above my upturned face. Every time I squeaked it would drop its legs to their full length with talons wide spread apparently with the expectation of picking a mouse off the crown of my hat. Indeed its behaviour was so threatening that I was positively afraid to continue the invitation. 

Shortly after I stopped it the bird alighted on the topmost slender twig of a scrub oak within four or five yards of me while the male returned to his former perch in the pine… Altogether I had these interesting & beautiful creatures within a few yards of me for at least ten minutes. (1897 Journal of William Brewster. Text edited with line breaks for readability.)

He closed with some observations:

“This is the first opportunity I have ever had of watching the Long-eared Owl while actually engaged in hunting... I confess that I had not suspected that they sought their prey to so large a degree in the open & by flying about in search of it but had pictured the bird sitting erect & still in the depths of the woods watching the ground beneath.”  


If you enjoyed this post, you might like to read some older posts with Brewster’s other animal encounters, like the times he canoed after a moose and scratched the head of a young muskrat until it fell asleep

This post is part of a series on the collection of ornithologist William Brewster (1851-1919) at the Ernst Mayr Library, written by Elizabeth Meyer, library project assistant.