The story of the Amity owls
Duluth photographer and author Richard Hoeg follows a family of great horned owls for a new children's book.
Richard Hoeg remembers growing up in his family’s Woodland neighborhood home in Duluth that was filled with small owl statues that his father collected. So maybe that’s where it all started.
“My dad grew up on a farm in west-central Iowa and I think he was fascinated with owls out on the farm,’’ Hoeg said as we walked in the woods near his Duluth home, looking for owls. “He had little owl statues all around in the house. We’d go for drives and look for owls …”
Hoeg is definitely keeping up the family tradition. A self-proclaimed amateur naturalist, birder, author and accomplished outdoor photographer, Hoeg just released his second children’s book about owls (self-published by his 365 Days of Birds Press.) He also took photographs for two more beginning reading books for kids featuring, you guessed it, owls.
“They captivate me,’’ Hoeg said. So much so that his grandchildren know him as “the owl guy.”
Hoeg’s latest book, entitled “Do You Hoot? The Story of the Amity Owls” was inspired by a family of great horned owls that Hoeg has been able to follow over the last nine months. Very few people are able to get this close to owls this often, let alone capture so much owl action and interaction.
The book is available now, absolutely free, to download. Hoeg is also taking orders for a paperback printed version that will be out around Labor Day. He’s charging $12 per copy now, just enough to cover the printing costs.
Susan Larson Kidd, a Duluth special education teacher who collaborated on the two children's early reading books with Hoeg — she did the writing, he took the photos — said Hoeg’s bird photos are perfect for children because they are simple yet beautiful.
“What amazes me about Rich is that his photos show exactly what kids need to see. They can focus on the specific subject and not a lot else,” she said. “They’re specific and clear and distinct.”
Larson Kidd said Hoeg’s photos “capture the essence of the creature.” When she saw Hoeg’s photos in the office lobby at their mutual dentist, she said she knew she wanted his photos for her books.
“And he’s so gracious that he lets anyone use his photos for free… so we both ended up giving away our work in the books,’’ she said, noting the books are available online to download for free. “He just wants to reach people and share what he knows, and I love that … He takes the photos because of how much he loves nature and how much he wants to share that love with others.”
Getting close to an owl family
The story of the Amity owls started early last winter when the male and female were courting each other. Hoeg can tell the difference between male and female hoots and eventually triangulated their locations and found the big white pine where they were setting up home in an old hawk nest.
“They borrow old nests, they don’t build them,’’ Hoeg noted of great horned owls.
The story unfolded all winter and spring and into summer, before Hoeg’s very observant eyes, and he knew he just had to tell it in book form. He made the decision to follow the owl family, with the intention of writing about it, back in January.
“I knew I wanted to do another children's book. And this owl family gave me exactly what I needed to do it,’’ Hoeg said at the base of the white pine where the family nested.
Hoeg was there the exact day the female began sitting on the nest in February. He knows that she didn’t move from the eggs, not once for weeks, while they incubated and the for several days after. (The owl dad — the pairs mate for life — was doing all the hunting at that time.) Hoeg knows the exact days the chicks hatched — there were three, he calls them the triplets — and even when they began to take their first, short flights (at about 47 days old.)
All of this happened, in large part, because Hoeg lives in such a wild part of Duluth, near Amity Creek and the Lester Park woods — where the monotone hoot … hoot … hoot … hoot of great horned owls is not uncommon. But also because Hoeg has such a keen interest, and sense of curiosity, about nature.
“I can often hear them hooting from the house ... And they were coming into our yard pretty often earlier in the summer,’’ Hoeg said of his owl family.
Once, just before dawn on an early summer morning, Hoeg heard a terrible racket from the woods across the street. It was a murder of crows and Hoeg said he instincivley knew what was going on. He raced out of the house.
“The other birds will usually tell you where the owls are,’’ Hoeg said. “Great horned owls are nasty-good hunters. And the other birds get very nervous whenever they are around.”
Crows and owls have an especially deep dislike of each other. Owls often kill and eat baby crows, and crows will return the favor whenever they can.
Hoeg walked into the woods and found the crows had knocked one of the three owlets out of a tree and were dive-bombing it along a trail. Crows were an almost daily annoyance for the owl family when the owlets are young — one of the parents was always near the chicks to protect them from crows — but this time it was a matter of life or death.
“When I say a big flock, it was like 50 or 60 crows. It was huge. And they had the little owl pinned down,’’ Hoeg said.
Hoeg shooed away the closest crows and, as if working as a team, the mother and father owls began to attack the flock to fend them off their youngster. Hoeg then “herded’’ the little owl to a safer place, off a bike trail, and back toward it’s nesting tree.
“I sat with it for a couple of hours … I guess you’d say I was protecting it from fox or whatever ... And it eventually regained its strength and was able to fly up in a tree,’’ Hoeg said. “That experience, it was one of the most special days of my life.”
Eat just about anything
When the owlets were hatched, but before they fledged, Hoeg would visit the nesting tree two or three times daily. He said the family eventually got accustomed to his quiet, slow-moving presence.
“Hey, there’s a pandemic on, you can’t go anywhere. And this is better than watching anything that’s on TV. It’s not even close,” Hoeg exclaimed.
Hoeg took hundreds of photos of the owl family, many of which are in the new book. And while he was taking photos he absorbed a lot about owl behavior, like what they eat.
“Just about anything they can carry. I found dead rats under the nest, decapitated robins, many young crows, rabbits, part of a barred owl, flickers ...’’ Hoeg said. “They really will take just about whatever they come across and think they can handle.”
Because of that, when he knows the owls are out hunting in the Lester Park neighborhood, Hoeg has posted on the Nextdoor neighborhood social media site for people to make sure their laying chickens, cats or pet rabbits are safely housed.
“They have been known to kill small raccoons,’’ he noted.
Hoeg started following the owl family as he battled a rare vision disorder called Blepharospasm. The problem isn’t in his eyes but in his brain — the brain sends a signal to the eyelids to close when they should be open. At some points last winter it was nearly impossible for Hoeg to keep his eyes open and he was crashing into things when venturing outdoors. Hoeg was afraid he was falling into blindness. But he found an eye specialist who properly diagnosed the disease and treated it with injections that were immediately successful.
“My first treatment was the first week in January and suddenly I could cross-country ski and search for my owls,” Hoeg said, saying he never felt more lucky.
A retired software developer who worked for Honeywell and as a consultant, Hoeg was able to retire early, at 57, and has spent much of the time since then outdoors. When he’s not photographing birds in his own neighborhood, Hoeg, now 64, can be found helping out at the Sax-Zim Bog where he’s a volunteer naturalist. He’s also an avid night sky photographer, cross country skier, marathon runner and long-distance, cross-country bicyclist with his wife, Molly.
Hoeg and Larson-Kidd are collaborating on yet another children’s book, probably out in 2021. And Hoeg said he wants to keep writing in retirement. While he loves simply walking amidst nature and observing it with his camera, he said he’s driven to share what he learns — and what he feels — with others. Especially with children.
“That’s the naturalist in me. I think if kids can learn a story, and relate to it, maybe they will remember that and maybe they’ll take an interest in nature,’’ he said.
Hoeg noted that he grew up in Duluth “with all the other kids, running around exploring in the woods near home,’’ and that many children now aren’t getting that kind of immersion in nature.
“I feel like I’m giving back some of what I’ve received over the years,’’ he noted. “At least I hope the books will help do that.”
Richard Hoeg of Duluth points to a perch used by great horned owls during a recent walk in the woods of Lester Park where he photographed a family of great horned owls for the children's book "Do You Hoot?" (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Do you Hoot?
Richard Hoeg’s latest children's book, “Do You Hoot? The Story of the Amity Owls” is now available to download, for free, at his website, 365daysofbirds.com/doyouhoot/ where you can also pre-order a copy of the printed book, due out after Labor Day, for $12. Post-publishing price will be $13.50. Other books available for free downloads on his website include Hoeg’s “Snowy’s Search for Color,’’ and two early learning books written by Susan Larson Kidd with photographs by Hoeg, “But That is Not Me!” and “Hey there Mr. Owl.”
About great horned owls
The great horned owl, sometimes called the hoot owl or tiger owl, is an extremely adaptable bird with a vast range of habitat. It’s the most widely distributed true owl in North America. They of course do not have horns but have two prominent feathered tufts on the head that look a bit horn-like. Their coloration is mottled gray-brown, with reddish brown faces and a white patch on the throat. Great horned owls are nocturnal. You may see them at dusk sitting on fence posts or tree limbs at the edges of open areas, or flying across roads or fields with stiff beats of their rounded wings. Their call is a deep series of four to five single-note hoots.
Weight: Adults, about 3 pounds.
Length: 18-25 inches.
Wingspan: Up to 40 inches.
Eats: Rodents, small mammals, small and medium-sized birds.
Scientific name: Bubo virginianus
Conservation status: Population stable; of least concern.
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology