OWL MAN: Irving Kassoy, Barn Owls and the BCBC
Updated: Feb 26
Bird Notes: Sunday morning bird walks continue as always at 9:30am meeting at the Boathouse Restaurant/Cafe.
In this week's Historical Notes we present an article from New Yorker magazine from the mid-1930s, on a man who studied nesting Barn Owls in the Bronx. The man was Irving Kassoy, a member of the Bronx County Bird Club (the BCBC). Talk about avant-garde!
However, it was not with birds/owls that Irv Kassoy would achieve some fame. Rather, at about the time the New Yorker article was published, Irv founded a jewelry company in Manhattan that still exists today - they have a showroom in the Diamond District on 47th street. You can also find them on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KassoyLLC/
Kassoy Jewelry Company (2016): https://tinyurl.com/wycekcj
In the 1950s, Irving Kassoy moved to Ohio, and seems to have had an influence on a young Stephen Kress - who some people might consider to be the PUFFIN MAN (do a google search on both men). The Bio of Irv Kassoy (second historical article below) is worth reading as well.
However, if you are only interested in Barn Owls, here is a 1902 article from Queens, NY.
The Barn Owl on Long Island .
From Doctor Braislin's, "Notes concerning certain Birds of Long Island," published in the July number of this magazine, I am led to infer that there has heretofore been some doubt about the presence of the Barn Owl on our island. It may be of interest to Doctor Braislin to know that a pair of these owls formerly inhabited the steeple of the Congregational Church on the corner of Lincoln Street and Browne Avenue, Flushing [Queens: https://tinyurl.com/rzh8twb photos: https://tinyurl.com/quxuno9 ]. For many years I knew of their presence there, but did not divulge the secret for fear that they might be driven away by the church people. No doubt they would still be there had not the church been overhauled and new glass put into the steeple sash where the birds were wont to enter. The owls shared the steeple with a colony of pigeons and brought muskrats and other small mammals to their young, although there were fat young squabs within reach. Mr. Langdon Gibson, brother of Chas. Dana Gibson the artist, was also aware of the presence of the Barn Owls in the Congregational spire. Gibson was then a lad and he climbed up to the nest securing two young owls, if I remember aright; at any rate, he brought me one which I kept for some time and from it I made a number of drawings and still have them in my portfolio. Of all the creatures I have ever sketched there are none so absurdly comical in looks and action as young Barn Owls, and I can well understand the cause of the popular name of 'Monkey-faced Owl' applied to these white-faced, beady-eyed young imps.
DAN BEARD, Flushing, N.Y.
[The writer was one of the co-founders of the Boy Scouts of America.]
Male Hooded Merganser display by Deborah Allen at the Reservoir, Sunday 19 January 2020
Barn Owl in Washington State - March 2017
Good! The Bird Walks for Late Jan. through Early Feb.
All Walks @ $10/person - All walks in Central Park
Sunday, 26 January 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive
Sunday, 3 February 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive
Sunday, 10 February 2020 at 9:30am - Boathouse Cafe; 74th street/ East Drive
Immature Snow Geese, Reservoir of Central Park by Deborah Allen on Sunday, 19 January 2020
The fine print: Our walks on weekends meet at 9:30am at the Boathouse Restaurant (approx. 74th street and the East Drive) through early January 2020. Please note: the Boathouse is not one of the buildings that surround the nearby Model Boat Pond - people make this mistake all the time!
Please note that on SATURDAYS we may meet at other locations than Central Park. For example, on 21 December (Saturday) we will be at NYBG in the Bronx...so keep an eye on the Saturday schedule: we might also have no Saturday walks on some weekends in December-January.
Our home phone is 718-828-8262...and Deborah's cell is: 347-703-5554. Email is (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you are lost and trying to get to the bird walk, call Deborah's cell phone...but remember on weekends there will be 2-3 other people calling who are also lost - please be patient. If in doubt about whether a walk will take place or not the morning of the walk: check the main landing page of this web site as well as the "Schedule" page - if the walk is cancelled, information will be posted there by 6am the day of the walk, and usually by 11pm the night before. If still confused and as a last resort, call us at home - if no one answers it means we left for the bird walk. We end all our Central Park walks (except Fridays) at the Boathouse at about noon; you can get a cup of coffee and a muffin there (around $6 total). Walks last about 3 hrs (less if hot or rainy), and you can leave at anytime - we won't be offended. If you need directions/help to your next destination, just ask someone on the walk - we are a helpful group.
Immature Great Blue Heron, Upper Lobe in Central Park on Sunday, 19 January 2020 by Deborah Allen
Here is what we saw last week (brief highlights)
Sunday, 19 January 2020 (Boathouse Restaurant at 9:30am)
Deborah found the best birds of the day today at 8am: two first-year Snow Geese at the Reservoir. We would later take the group there and added Gadwall (Gillian Henry MD); Hooded Mergansers (see Deborah's photo above); Pied-billed Grebe; Northern Shovellers; Ruddy Ducks and more - all the waterfowl we could bring in closer via use of the tape EXCEPT the two Snow Geese who tried to sleep through all the sounds I played...but briefly lifted their heads our way - see photo above.
The most interesting experience we had of the morning was interacting with a Cooper's Hawk (top photo) in the Ramble. I used the tape to bring the bird from one perch to the next - we did this for about 10 minutes: the Cooper's was quite interested in the sound - flying in and perching over my head...and doing display flights as it came in. Sandra and others (including Deborah's photo above) got great close-up images. This hawk (and another young male) has been hanging around all winter, and getting plenty to eat in the area of the bird feeders...
Barn Owl at Nest Box by Deborah Allen, Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx on 11 October 2015
SOMEHOW or other, Miss Emily Nathan, publicity manager for the Audubon Society, got the idea that a barn owl sleeps every night with Mr. Irving Kassoy at his apartment in the Bronx at 817 Faile Street. Maybe it was because a stuffed barn owl is perched on the bureau in Mr. Kassoy's bedroom and he knows where there is a live barn owl. Miss Nathan, with other things on her mind, didn't catch the distinction. At all events she got word to me that Mr. Kassoy had an owl sleeping with him and that I could have an interview with Mr. Kassoy. "Besides," said Miss Nathan, "the National Association of Audubon Societies gets all its owl reports from Mr. Kassoy."
I met Mr. Kassoy at six that evening at the Audubon Society's headquarters, at Fifty-seventh Street and Broadway, after he had completed his day's work. He is a slim little fellow of thirty-two, very pale and somewhat bald. His chin is pointed and his skin is drawn taut from his cheeks up to his wide forehead. You couldn't help noticing his grave eyes because of the thick glasses he wears. Even to one not knowing the nature of his hobby, Mr. Kassoy's general appearance would be hauntingly suggestive of owls.
Mr. Kassoy was sitting there in the anteroom of the Audubon offices telling Miss Nathan about the difference in behavior between male and female owls. As soon as I came in, Miss Nathan broke the bad news to me that Mr. Kassoy's barn owl did not roost in Mr. Kassoy's bedroom, after all. Even if it did, it had occurred to Miss Nathan, it would be unlikely that an owl would stay home after dark to be visited. It occurred to me that I ought to have thought of that myself. Mr. Kassoy immediately moderated my dismay by saying that he could take me to the home of a barn owl resident in New York City if I cared to make a rather strenuous trip, and I impulsively accepted his invitation. With very little more conversation we started off, after saying good night to Miss Nathan.
Crossing town on Fifty-ninth Street, Mr. Kassoy told me that when he is not checking up on owls, he works as a jewelry salesman in midtown Manhattan. Then he went on eagerly to give me a brief introduction to the owl situation in the city. He said there might very likely be a pair of screech owls living right over there in Central Park and that the short-eared owl, the saw-whet owl, the great horned owl, and two or three other owls are seen around there occasionally on their way through town during migration seasons. But his interest was primarily in the barn owl, he said, because that's the kind that lives here all year round. As he talked, it developed that he was interested, actually, in only one barn owl, because, as far as he can find out, only one barn owl now lives in New York.
"Pelham Bay Park is the only place in the city where you can definitely go to see a barn owl when you want to see one," said Mr. Kassoy, picking his phrases with scientific care. "And, as a matter of fact, there's only one of the birds up there now. I've looked everywhere for more of them--last May there was a pair in a church over in Flushing, and a few years ago (you'd hardly believe it, would you?) there were some in a factory up on East 138th Street - but the only barn owl I know of now is in Pelham Bay Park. I suppose you can't print this, but a man who is familiar with barn owls can always tell where they are by the droppings outside the place they're nesting in. I mean he knows it's a barn owl and not a pigeon or some other kind of bird. Barn owls generally live in church belfries. I've been looking at a lot of belfries but I haven't covered them all as yet. There are so many churches in New York."
Barn Owl atop Pine Hill by Deborah Allen in Central Park, 11 April 2018
We went into the subway at Bloomingdale's and got on an uptown local. It was crowded, and Mr. Kassoy shouted above the roar that he had first heard of barn owls living in Pelham Bay Park in 1932. A pair of them had built a nest in a ventilator over the library of the old Huntington mansion, erected by the railroad magnate and now used by the Parks Department as a sort of warehouse. The next spring the female laid six eggs, and five of them hatched. It was then that Mr. Kassoy began to develop what he described as his monomania. Owl study isn't very exciting when there are no young birds, because the adults won't stay on their nests to be observed. All you get is a glimpse of them at dusk darting forth in search of food. But when there are babies, the female stands guard over them all night long while the father bird brings in the food. You can observe them then to beat the band, it seems.
Mr. Kassoy first of all got permission and some keys from the Parks Department to visit the Huntington mansion at all hours. Then he set a birdhouse against the interior opening of the ventilator. The owls seemed to like the birdhouse, and even stayed right on when Mr. Kassoy installed in it a little electric light operated by a dry-cell battery. Finally, he rigged up a piece of glass so that when it was dark outside and the light was turned on inside the cage, Mr. Kassoy could see the owls but the owls couldn't see Mr. Kassoy.
Three of that first batch of baby owls waddled through the ventilator, fell two stories to the ground, and died. The two others grew up and flew away. Mr. Kassoy never saw them again. The parents stayed on and Mr. Kassoy observed them every night. Then, in March, 1934, Mr. Kassoy found the female dead on the nest. That's the one, stuffed and mounted, in his bedroom. The male had a new mate in ten days. "A commentary on the sole abundance of the barn owl in New York," Mr. Kassoy said as the train pulled into Ninety-sixth Street.
WELL, the new female deposited four eggs and three of them hatched out, and Mr. Kassoy put a little platform outside the ventilator to protect the young from the fate of their predecessors. "When they were only eighteen days old," said Mr. Kassoy, pushing a straphanger's Evening Journal out of his face, "the barn owl's ancient enemy, the crow, chased the mother out over Eastchester Bay, where some herring gulls took up after her, pounced on her, and apparently finished her off."
Within a fortnight, he went on, the widower had a new companion, and that's the owl over which Mr. Kassoy now keeps lonely vigil in Pelham Bay Park and the one he was now taking me to see. She would have nothing to do with rearing her predecessor's offspring, he said, and kept disappearing from time to time. While the father owl labored to bring up his half-orphans, she'd go away for as long as a fortnight at a stretch. Finally, when the youngsters grew up, she settled down and hatched out five of her own. They came along pretty late in the season.
It snowed heavily in January and February of 1935, but Mr. Kassoy still floundered from the end of the subway line through the drifts in the park to the Huntington mansion two or three nights a week. Some of the young owls died of starvation and the others went away. Finally the male vanished, and since that time Mr. Kassoy has had only the movements of the lone female to observe.
"There was every indication during March of 1935 that she was seeking a new mate," Mr. Kassoy shouted down the neck of a bouncing matron in front of him. "But she was not successful, and in April she disappeared. I thought it was all over then, but she came back in June. Last spring it was the same thing - she went away for a long while but came back. No mates, so far as I could learn."
At the Hunts Point station we got out of the subway to pick up a flash-light at Mr. Kassoy's home. By this time we were both referring to the long series of bird tenants at the Huntington mansion as "female number one," "female number two," and "female number three." As we climbed the stairs to the street, I asked Mr. Kassoy if he had some pet name, like Lizzie or Iphigenia, for the last female barn owl whose life he has studied during the last two and a half years.
"Why should I?" he asked gravely. "The bird doesn't know me." We walked up four flights to the apartment where Mr. Kassoy lives with his parents. Down the long hallway I could see them at dinner, but we just went into Mr. Kassoy's little bedroom, where the only ornaments were that stuffed owl on the bureau and a mounted duck on the bookcase.
Mr. Kassoy told me he had been born in Russia and was brought to the Bronx when he was a few weeks old. He is unmarried. He asked me if I had had dinner, and where. I told him I had, he said he'd had a late lunch and didn't want any. Then he called to his parents, “I'm going out," and we started downstairs.
We went back to the subway and continued on our way to Pelham Bay Park. The train was almost empty that far uptown, and the only person in the car with us was an extremely pretty girl who sat directly opposite Mr. Kassoy was telling me about "the guttural, vibrant quality of the barn owl's call just before copulation" when the train ground to a halt and his voice suddenly became painfully audible. The young woman looked up and studied Mr. Kassoy intently. After appraising his shiny blue suit, his pink shirt, and his sweat-stained felt hat, she unexpectedly smiled directly at his earnest, wan face. Mr. Kassoy was looking in her direction, but I don't think he even saw her. He began to tell me about the winter night he tried to keep his owls from starving.
"It was in 1935, when the male disappeared, and we were having a heavy snow that night," he explained. "The next morning I said, 'Well, the barn owls are having a tough time up there, but I guess they'll weather it.' The next night it snowed again and there was a gale, so that evening I took two pounds of raw beefsteak up there. It was a Saturday night, and there was about a foot of snow on the ground. I had quite a time breaking a track through, and when I got there the keeper had locked up his home. (I have to go there to get the keys to the mansion.) It was midnight by that time. I couldn't get in, so I scattered the meat around outside."
Generally speaking, however, Mr. Kassoy does not like to feed his owl, because of a strange gastronomic process peculiar to the birds. Barn owls live mostly on mice and rats, which they swallow whole. Their digestive juices get to working on the mess and peel the meat from the skeleton sort of like boiling a soup bone. On the way home, the owl's insides roll up the bones, along with the fur, into a black pellet about the size of a horse chestnut. It would seem more conducive to pleasant living if the owl got rid of this somewhere outdoors, but it doesn't. It waits until it reaches its nest and then disgorges the pellet. Nasty as it sounds, the habit is a godsend to Mr. Kassoy, for it has afforded him his principal contact with his owl since the last batch of young went away, nearly two years ago. By opening up the pellets and examining the little rodents' skulls inside them, Mr. Kassoy can tell how well his owl has been eating. He also can determine, from the consistency of the pellet, whether the owl has been home recently or whether she is out on one of her periodic wandering sprees. He seldom sees his owl any more, but feels that the pellets keep him on quite intimate terms with her.
The train reached the end of the line and we got off. Mr. Kassoy wanted to get some cigarettes, so we went into a neighborhood bar and grill. The bartender came forward with a smile. Mr. Kassoy asked him if he sold cigarettes and the man pointed to a vending machine. "You know," Mr. Kassoy told me, as he poked his coins into the device, "no one ever made a study of barn owls' behavior on the nest before. "We headed off cross-country through Pelham Bay Park. Mr. Kassoy flicked his flashlight on and off, but not to find our path. He kept flashing it up into the trees, hoping, he told me, to spot the sparkle of an owl's eye. There didn't seem to be any around. Then we stood still while Mr. Kassoy whistled low and mournfully. He said if there were any screech owls in the vicinity, that’d answer that. The only thing we heard was the rumble of our subway train, far behind us, starting back toward Manhattan.
"I wish you could hear a barn owl," Mr. Kassoy said, leading the way confidently through the dark. "It's sort of a long, drawn-out, rasping scream. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it gave rise to the banshee legends in Ireland."
"You wouldn't?" I inquired, absently, as I stumbled through the underbrush.
"No," he replied, "but it's just an unsubstantiated theory of mine, so maybe you'd better not mention it."
After half a dozen more unanswered calls for screech owls, we saw a light through the trees. It came from the park caretaker's cottage, where Mr. Kassoy always has to stop to pick up the keys to the Huntington Mansion. Mr. Kassoy told me that the caretaker, Mr. Devine, thinks the mansion is haunted, and that anyone who’d sit up alone in all-night, solitary watch over the nest is mad.
The keys were in a little box on Mr. Devine's back porch. Mr. Kassoy called a cheery greeting to the caretaker, who was sitting in the living room in his shirtsleeves. Mr. Devine replied with a curt, "Hello." Then we continued toward the mansion.
It was a gloomy place, all right. At one end of the library, Mr. Kassoy's light picked out a huge tree - an elm, I think he said it was - which, he said, in season, has such thick foliage that it's almost as dark as night underneath it on a summer afternoon. The building itself was covered with ivy, which rustled in the chilly evening air. Up near the eaves, Mr. Kassoy's flash spotted the little ventilation opening through which passes the only known barn owl in New York City.
We stood around in the courtyard for a while, looking for owls but not seeing any, and then Mr. Kassoy led the way around to the carriage entrance. "Gosh, I love this place!" he said as he fumbled with the lock. "After four years of coming up here nights alone and all the things I've seen here and all - I love it, you know."
The Parks Department keeps seeds in the old library, and the place smelled moist and warm. I found myself tiptoeing. Suddenly, Mr. Kassoy opened the door to a stairway and flashed his light quickly upward. "Hmm, that's funny," he said. "Generally, there's a rat on these stairs. Runs up ahead of me every night." Two flights up we came to a trapdoor. Mr. Kassoy had a key for that, too. That brought us to the caves and the ventilator. Mr. Kassoy fiddled around with some batteries in one corner and pretty soon a pale light appeared near the door. It was in the barn owl's nest -- a plain box with an open top, pushed up against the entrance afforded by the ventilator.
Removing one of the boards, Mr. Kassoy bent tenderly over the cubbyhole, which was foul. He picked up a buff-colored feather and told me it had been part of his barn owl's plumage.
Then Mr. Kassoy began inspecting the pellets left in the nest since his last visit. Nearly every one of them contained two rat skulls. A few of the pellets were old and dry, but presently Mr. Kassoy came upon a fresh one and he became visibly excited. "That was left just today," he said. "The owl was here last night."
Sitting there in the faint light from the cage, I suggested to Mr. Kassoy that time must pass slowly during an all-night, solitary watch over the nest. But he said no, it didn't, and that Saturday nights were particular treats, because then he could sleep the next day.
"I remember one time, though," he went on. "It was about two o'clock on a Sunday morning. It was so quiet up here I could hear my watch ticking in my pocket. Suddenly, someone slammed the door downstairs. I knew I was the only one with a key to the place and that I had locked the door. And I knew whoever it was down there had no business in the house.
"Well, I never knew before that it really could happen, but my hair actually stood out on the sides of my head. Then I heard footsteps in the hall downstairs, and then they started coming upstairs. I heard them coming right up that stairway to the trapdoor. Just then, though, one of the owls flew in to feed the young and I had to make a note of that in my records. So I forgot all about the footsteps."
Mr. Kassoy paused for dramatic effect, I suspected. He said no more. "What about the intruder?" I finally asked.
"I don't know," said Mr. Kassoy. "After I'd made my notes, I didn't hear the footsteps any more."
On the way back to the subway, I asked Mr. Kassoy where his owl went at night. He admitted, sadly, that he wasn't sure. "She generally starts out over Eastchester Bay," he said. One time Mr. Kassoy went over to the other side of the bay every evening for a week, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bird arriving there. After seven fruitless evenings, he returned to the nest and checked up on the pellets. His owl hadn't been home once during the whole week. She stayed away a month that time.
Barn Owl in Washington state - March 2017
The Owl Man
by Tom Thomson
Irv Kassoy was born in Odessa, Russia, in 1904, and two years later his family immigrated to the United States, where they lived in New York City, "four stories up, in the rear," he would jokingly say.
I first got to know Irv in the early 50s when he and his wife moved to Columbus.
For several years while in New York, he worked for a Manhattan jeweler's firm, selling diamond rings and Swiss watches, perhaps hoping to fulfill the American Dream, make it big, make a lot of money and live the good life. It didn't work out that way. However, he did serve in the Armed Forces of the United States during World War II, and somewhere along the way he learned how to live the good life: he developed an interest in birds, especially owls, more specifically, barn owls.
He became a member of the Bronx County Bird Club, a group of young men, ardent ornithologists all, who had once even questioned the birding qualifications of Roger Tory Peterson before admitting him to membership. There were nine charter members of the club, which included such well-known names as Allan Cruickshank and Joseph Hickey. Peterson survived the one-upmanship, of course, and not only was elected into membership but became the club's most famous alumnus.
In his book, "Birds Over America," Peterson describes going with Irv one evening to the old Huntington mansion on Pelham Bay which in recent years had become part of the park system. Irv had access to a key to the house.. On the third floor of that deserted old mansion he had been observing a family of barn owls. He had pushed a large cardboard box with a glass top up against a ventilator hole through which the birds gained entry. A tiny battery-powered light within the box enabled them to see five owlets huddled inside.
Irv spent over 200 nights by himself hunched over that box, "like some immobile Buddha," observing the comings and goings of the parent birds; their feeding of the young, their housekeeping habits, even their love making.
In that spooky place, waiting for owls to appear who had more than a passing resemblance to ghosts, Kassoy had plenty of time to think about life, and death. Sometimes when the parent birds were out hunting, it was hard for him to stay awake. Sometimes it was hard to separate the world of the owls from his own world, fact from fiction, reality from dreams.
One night he awoke with a start when he thought he heard a downstairs door open, then slam shut. He knew no one else had a key. He heard heavy, deliberate footsteps that stopped just below the trapdoor that led up to his observation post. The hair on Irv's head stood on end.
Just then he heard the characteristic scream of the adult owls somewhere in the darkness outside. Then one of them swooped down and made its way through the ventilator and into the nesting box, a mouse dangling from its beak, He forgot all about the possibility of human intruders, or otherwise.
Irv never quite made up his mind after that night whether he had been dreaming or whether someone had actually entered the house. The caretaker, who lived nearby, believed the house was haunted. Maybe that was the answer.
Irv kept copious notes on the barn owl families he so devotedly observed. Even after he moved to Columbus, he worked on this material, hoping that someday he could develop it into a definitive study of the barn owl. For one reason or another, it was not to be.
In Columbus, Irv had his own upholstery business. He became active in local birding circles, took part in numerous Christmas Bird Counts, and in the process discovered the Ross-Pickaway County Line Road, famous over the years for wintering hawks, occasional short-eared owls, and numerous other birding attractions. The area drew him like a magnet.
Toward the end of his life, Irv suffered from emphysema which became ever more acute because of his inability to give up cigarettes. He died in Cape Coral, Florida on April 6, 1978 and his ashes were sent to Columbus where they were scattered at a spot along County Line Road by Don Smith and Ernie Limes.
Don Smith said that while they were engaged in that sad task, "three red-tailed hawks circled over the area and flew off to the hills to the south as if in salute and farewell."
Deborah Allen and Robert DeCandido PhD
Barn Owl, NYC in July 2009