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Meditations On A Congress Of Owls

When a pair of Great Horned owls set up nest along a busy road, Tim Crawford was there to photograph—and celebrate—them. Be it human or natural community, he says it's important to give a hoot


Who's that looking at you? Great Horned owls may be the most formidable avian predator in pastoral landscapes. And Tim Crawford had a front row seat.
Who's that looking at you? Great Horned owls may be the most formidable avian predator in pastoral landscapes. And Tim Crawford had a front row seat.

by Todd Wilkinson

North of Belgrade, past the bursting presence of Bozeman-Yellowstone International Airport in Montana but not so far as the rising Horseshoe Hills, Tim Crawford at the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown in spring 2020 noticed a condo of sticks being built in the branches of an old cottonwood tree. 

The tree happened to be situated within a stone’s throw of busy-and turning-ever-busier—Dry Creek Road.

Crawford, who has had several different professional identities, spied a mating pair of Great Horned Owls while driving home to his 300-acre farm that stretches across both sides of the East Gallatin River. 

Per his daily ritual, every morning around dawn and on many evenings—be it sunny, smoky, raining or snowing— he heads out with his camera to document low-light. The ambient effects in his pictures are reminders of what’s at stake, he says, in a still semi-rural corner of the northeast Gallatin Valley. 

What he didn’t expect was to see the owls on his journey home from Bozeman.

Great Horned owls also known colloquially in our cultural lexicon as “hoot owls" and "tiger owls," are the most widespread owls in the country, highly adaptable to different environments and they are fearsome predators. They feast on rodents, rabbits, skunks, snakes and have been known to bring down other raptors. They have no natural predators apart from humans and, according to the International Owl Center, they face a gauntlet of perils: being struck by vehicles, shot, electrocuted by power lines, flying into barbed wire fences while hunting, getting caught in leghold traps or poisoned by eating poisoned mice or ingesting poison baits, and the latest disease, West Nile virus. The oldest-known wild Great Horned is 28.

For two months, Crawford staked out the owl nest. Now, a taste of those visual fruits can been seen, through the end of April, in a small photo exhibition at Café M in Bozeman, located at 33 W. Kagy. Titled “A Congress of Owls,” the showing is a sweet interlude for those going to Café M for coffee, tea or a pastry. I mention it here because Crawford is not one to call attention.

As a natural history note, scientists and birders apply names to differing kinds of avians when gathered together—a group of crows or ravens is “a murder” and with families of owls those in the United Kingdom reference them as “a parliament.” On this side of the Atlantic, some instead describe them as “a congress.” The website, The Spruce, has compiled a listing of the wonderful names ascribed to birds of the same flock getting together.  

“The thing I enjoyed about the owl project is it was totally absorbing just as we were entering the social lockdown to control Covid,” Crawford explains. “I would think about them (the owl clan) when I wasn’t there and as I was drifting off to sleep at night. They provided an excellent distraction from trying to make sense of the politics of this country. And who doesn’t like owls?”
Mother and offspring. Photo by Tim Crawford
Mother and offspring. Photo by Tim Crawford
Like the owls, there’s a colorful backstory to Crawford, who is a Mountain Journal columnist and businessperson, and whose name is best known perhaps for his brand of sharp rhetorical pugilism that has appeared in the form of letters to the editor in newspapers across Montana. Not a mere curmudgeon, Crawford has, privately, been an exemplar of giving back to a community he loves.

Among some of his beneficiaries: he paid for solar panels to be installed on the roof of the Emerson Cultural Center as a way of promoting alternative energy. He followed that by paying for a solar power system put into a grammar school in Roundup where he has a ranch and soon will foot the bill for a similar system installed at the Roundup High School (no small irony being that Roundup is located in the middle of Montana coal country).

Crawford also donated a huge amount of the $1 million needed to save the Emerson lawn from development when the Bozeman School Board voted hastily to sell it.  Out at Logan, along the East Gallatin, he worked together with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and his close late friend Bud Lilly, the legendary fly fisherman, to create a new fishing access to the river. 

Crawford on a recent birthday
Crawford on a recent birthday
Crawford also believed in the viability of Main Street in downtown Bozeman in the early 1990s— at a time when many were abandoning it, pointing to the new North 19th Avenue strip as the place that would define “the new Bozeman.” To serve as an anchor, he bought the historic building at the corner of Main and Tracy, renovated it with help from the late restorer Richard Tier, and demonstrated that “new”— cheaply or unimaginatively constructed—cannot easily replace the character found in old, authentic structures put up to last by builder craftspeople in earlier eras. 

“I thought then, and still do today, that Main Street is part of the soul of this town and it ought not to become a Disneyland of nostalgia erected for visitors,” he says. “I fell in love with the Bozeman of old which, when you walked into a store or restaurant or bought a book or magazine, the people who owned an establishment worked there and they knew your name. That’s disappearing and it’s a damned shame.”

The causes most near and dear to Crawford involve those of social service, like programs of HRDC and Haven, that help people who can’t afford rents, families—especially single moms and kids—suffering from hunger or abuse, and, of course, Gallatin Valley’s homeless that few who dwell in paradise want to acknowledge exists. Crawford gets choked up talking about the plight of those struggling at the same time so much wealth is pouring in.

For MoJo, as a columnist, he called attention to the leveling of a couple of trailer parks that were purchased by developers and then replaced with so-called “affordable” town houses costing thousands per month to rent or a half a million dollars or more to own. “What happened to the working-class tenants who were there before?” he asks. “No one but groups like HRDC knows but worse, not enough people here care to know.”

For sure, Crawford is a non-politically correct character. A life-long hunter, gun owner and supporter of the 2ndAmendment“with reservations,” he has a helluva aim, whether shooting skeet, trap or rifle targets at 100 yards or more. 

While he would describe himself as a cross between a bleeding heart on social issues, a fiscally responsible conservative and a freelance irreverent when it comes to things that don’t, to him, make sense, he condemns political parties that claim to hold a monopoly on certain kinds of issues. He once had a bumper sticker made that was widely circulated around southwest Montana that read, “Armed but Liberal.” 

Having a soft place in his soul for farmers and ranchers, he says Democrats have sometimes left little room for conservatives to have a bigger voice in conservation; by alienating them, he say, liberal enclaves like Bozeman have created social resentment and it’s resulted in today’s far right of center legislature in Helena.

“People need to try to understand and empathize with each other more—both sides,” he says, noting that most humans, including himself, pass through periods of adversity and need love and compassion more than knee-jerk ridicule.
“I thought then, and still do today, that Main Street is part of the soul of this town and it ought not to become a Disneyland of nostalgia erected for visitors. I fell in love with the Bozeman of old which, when you walked into a store or restaurant or bought a book or magazine, the people who owned an establishment worked there and they knew your name. That’s disappearing and it’s a damned shame.” —Tim Crawford
If you visit the restaurant Open Range in downtown Bozeman—owned by Jay Bentley who used to preside over The Mint Bar in Belgrade—there are a series of black and white portraits Crawford took two decades ago of farmers and ranchers in the Gallatin Valley. Many of those people have passed on, but Crawford cherishes the friendships he made and the fact that many saw the importance of keeping the valley pastoral which means more wildlife friendly. “The valley when those photos were made was a hell of a lot more rural and it wasn’t that long ago,” he laments. “All I know is that things were also friendlier.”

Crawford’s personal path could not have been predicted. Nearly 60 years ago, he worked for a time as a portrait shooter in Los Angeles, enlisted to create publicity photos of Hollywood actors who posed willingly and, equally as often, he was commissioned to deliver architecture imagery for real estate companies. 

His earlier formative years were spent working on several cattle ranches in north-central California co-owned by his family. The holdings included one spread out on Santa Rosa Island in the Pacific off the coast of Santa Barbara. Today, having been acquired by the federal government, it’s the largest in the archipelago of Channel Islands National Park. He readily notes that before the marine-going Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the 17th-century, the indigenous Chumash knew the island as part of their homelands and were victims of grave injustice. It’s why he supports a number of local groups focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Before Crawford ultimately made Bozeman his home more than 30 years ago, he had given up celebrity and real estate photography, believing that he was helping to sow artifice and development—the kind that has transformed southern California into a region that no longer squares with memories of his youth.

Crawford, in his twenties, worked on a BLM crew fighting fires in Alaska north of Arctic Circle, and, later, while in Idaho, got elected to serve on the Ketcham City Council.  “I’ve seen places rapidly change. I saw what happened in southern California after World War II and witnessed it in Sun Valley and when I moved to Bozeman, I was ahead of it. I never thought changes on the landscape would come to the Gallatin Valley so quickly,” he says. 
The farm situated off Dry Creek Road that he and his wife, Kathy, own on the East Gallatin covers about a mile of braided river and is a mixture of riparian and uplands that have been home to mule deer and whitetails passing through, as well as ever- rarer elk, moose, black bears, coyotes and foxes—in addition to Sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, bald eagles among several different raptors, river otters and pheasants.  

In a different rotund cottonwood on his property, that he has photographed in all seasons, there’s been a constant though often retooled bird nest over the years has been home to new springtime families of owls, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, osprey, ravens, Sandhill cranes and Canada geese.

What’s the value of a protected riparian—river—corridor? It’s writ large at the Crawfords’—a remnant window into what more of the Gallatin Valley was when it was wilder and had thousands of free-ranging wild bison up into the 19th century. 

The Crawford property, notably, is part of the conservation easement portfolio administered by Gallatin Valley Land Trust—an organization that Crawford believes in. GVLT has protected over 48,000 acres in the Gallatin, Paradise and Shields valleys. Some readers here might not know what a conservation easement is. Conservation easements, under the law, involve willing-participant property owners agreeing to give up their full development rights in exchange for tax breaks or, in Crawford’s case, the satisfaction of contributing to maintaining the natural essence of the land as a counterpoint to exurban sprawl. 
What’s the value of a protected riparian—river—corridor? It’s writ large at the Crawfords’—a remnant window into what more of the Gallatin Valley was when it was wilder and had thousands of free-ranging wild bison up into the 19th century. The Crawford property, notably, is part of the conservation easement portfolio administered by Gallatin Valley Land Trust.
The agreement becomes part of the land deed and in some cases has kept agrarian traditions alive. Some of Crawford’s neighbors, including Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner, have put their farmland under protection—in Skinner’s case compensation came from proceeds generated by public passage of the Gallatin County Open Space Bond.

Not only has Crawford put an easement on his ground, but he also deliberately chose to build his house away from the river and has spent a few decades trying to restore a corridor of water that was badly overgrazed by cattle. The measures he’s taken are all intended to benefit wildlife and fish.

But, back to the owls. This is a story, after all, about how little things in nature can deliver profound delight for those who are paying attention.

After the Great Horned couple completed their nest in April 2020, the female sat on twig pile while her male companion brought her sustenance—usually mice and ground squirrels. Eventually, she laid a clutch of eggs and after a few weeks the heads of three young owlets appeared. 

One of them, who hatched out a few hours before the others, ended up being the largest with the most voracious appetite; meanwhile, the last owlet to emerge, Crawford said, ended up being the equivalent of a runt in a dog litter. “I was pulling for that one,” he says. “What went on in the nest is a parallel for what we see today in human communities—how greedy appetites often come at the expense of those who are vulnerable.”

Several times a week, Crawford would pull his hybrid car off the road and used long camera lenses to take pictures, trying not to draw too much human attention that might disrupt the clan in the build-up to potential fledging.  Another worry, he admits, was harm coming to them by thoughtless people, as bullet holes in many road signs throughout the Gallatin Valley are evidence.

It’s tough work feeding three growing young owls and, after they hatched, both parents became busy engaged in gathering food. Finally, in June 2020, it was obvious that these triplets were ready to take their first awkward flight. Crawford captured some amazing photographs that you can see at Café M, a small sampling among hundreds of images. 
Out on a limb: A young Great Horned owl surveys the world below while preparing to fledge. Photo by Tim Crawford
Out on a limb: A young Great Horned owl surveys the world below while preparing to fledge. Photo by Tim Crawford
“One thing I’ve learned about nature is it’s best to live in the moment with it, but in order to do that you need to open your eyes and appreciate it, and once you do that, you can’t help but want to protect it,” he says. “I hope these pictures will open a few eyes. I hope we in this valley do not commit the folly of taking what’s still here in the Gallatin Valley for granted.”

Long ago, Crawford gave up on wishful thinking and replaced that attitude with deliberate conscious action. The Great Horned owl parents did not return to the same nest in 2021, though two of the three owlets did successfully fly away. 

The smallest, which brought sorrow to Tim and Kathy Crawford, was found dead on the asphalt, struck by a vehicle likely after it flapped to the ground.  The bird’s parents tried to teach it much about survival, but it was naïve about what waited below. It had no awareness of how perilous Dry Creek Road could be.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. He's been a journalist for 35 years and writes for publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics ranging from scientific whistleblowers to Ted Turner and the story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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