A Love Affair With the Ural Owl

They’re fierce, they have a four-foot wingspan, and they punch with their talons. But one female didn’t mind becoming a photographer’s muse.

This story appears in the June 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The young hunter was stalking moose in a frigid Estonian forest when he found himself locked in the sights of another creature: a Ural owl. He looked into her ebony eyes and softly fringed, heart-shaped face. Sven Začek was smitten.

He soon returned to the woods armed for a different kind of shot. He pulled his hood tight, fearing the owls’ reputation for clobbering intruders’ skulls. But the next female he met was aloof, matching his advances with equal retreats. After two months of silent standoffs, she dared to dive for a vole right in front of his lens.

“That was the turning point,” says Začek.

With the blitheness of a reality TV star, the owl let him record her domestic dramas for over three years. Courtships unfolded. Rodents were gobbled. Chicks chirped and wobbled their way to adulthood. In 2010 she disappeared. Začek blames nearby logging, which culls the rotten-at-the-core trees that Ural owls use as nests.

The species numbers a few hundred thousand in Europe, with millions more in northern Asia. Začek knows he will find others, but says none could replace his lost lady. —Amanda Fiegl