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The Roman poet Ovid's fertile imagination helped create the strix, a mythological vampire bird of ill omen that preyed on children and eventually became the genus name for Eurasian owls.

The great horned owl nesting just outside of Judge Mike Menahan's courtroom at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse is Bubo virginianus, and is much cuter than a vampire bird.

Ollie, as clerk Tammy Dillman named her, is most likely a late-nesting female great horned owl. Menahan thinks that she's young, due to the fact that, well, she nested by the courthouse.

As an avid (and that might not fully describe his love for birding) birdwatcher, Menahan is known for keeping the high windows of his courtroom open during the summer to keep an eye on birds flitting around the trees outside the courthouse, so the addition of the mostly nocturnal great horned owl is a major coup.

"It's the most common owl in North America," Menahan said. He and a court clerk had set up a watching station with binoculars, a camcorder aimed directly at Ollie and an encyclopedia of birds opened to the page on great horned owls.

Great horned owls are the heaviest owls in north America and are closely related to the snowy owl, which many people would recognize as Hedwig from the "Harry Potter" series. Females are generally larger than males and, depending on the size of the female, may have talon gripping power comparable to a golden eagle.

Essentially, great horned owls are big and bad.

Menahan has kept a close eye on Ollie since she moved into the crow's nest in late March.

"They usually lay eggs in February," he said, and stagger the eggs by a few days. Ollie seems to be breeding later than normal, Menahan believes, which, combined with the fact she borrowed a crow's nest, makes him think that she's a young mother.

"There's not a lot of food around here," he noted. With young raptor parents, if they don't catch enough food, that means their young will not survive. And because Broadway, a busy thoroughfare, is so close, Menahan is concerned that young owls will flutter into the street, maybe encountering a vehicle that doesn't quite see them in time.

That wouldn't be the first time Menahan has come into contact with a prematurely deceased great horned owl.

"I paid my way through college fighting forest fires," Menahan said. "I found a great horned owl killed in Avon, and I kept it in my parents' freezer" until it could be taken to an ornithologist at the University of Montana for future educational use, he said.

But before he could make the trip to Missoula, he was called to a fire out of state.

"I got a call from my mother," Menahan remembered with a laugh. "And she said 'Michael! What is in my freezer?'"

The younger Menahan had put the owl in a paper bag, and his mother had reached into the freezer and touched the talons first.

Ollie and possibly her chicks have a long road ahead, but rest assured, Menahan's courtroom will be keeping a very close eye on the experiences of the courtroom's newest appeal.

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Reporter

Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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