Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Living near 2 screech owls is a real hoot
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 27, 2008)
"Did you know the owl's sitting in the garage?" my son asked me the other afternoon while I was out in the nursery trimming bamboo. "What's he doing there?"
"Probably resting," I said, using the interruption to wipe a strand of hair out of my face. "Waiting for dark to hunt some mice."
The owl in question was the male half of a pair of Eastern screech owls that have taken up residence in an old letterbox mounted under our porch eaves. This is the third successive year screech owls have picked a nesting spot next to our house and the second year in a row that they've claimed the mailbox for their own.
The owls have moved into the empty letter holder completely "as is." No twigs, reeds, leaves or soft fur have been added to cushion the tinny enclosure. Mama owl has simply settled herself in the rear of the hollow space and hunkered down. Day and night, she sits in her metal abode, patiently focused on the task of parenting. Despite its lack of accouterments, the box is a safe, dry place to nest. With an expansive view of the lawn and lake, it's not too shabby from a real-estate point of view either.
Eastern screech owls are one of the most common owls, but until they nested near our house, I hardly knew they existed. I had no idea that these diminutive members of the Strigidae family -- a mature screech owl is only 6 to 10 inches tall -- mate for life and are as likely to be found in an urban setting as a rural or suburban one.
I had no idea that a screech owl makes a call eerily similar to a horse's whinny or that the female does most of the incubating assisted only intermittently by her male partner. I certainly had no idea that their diet included huge palmetto bugs as well as mice, small birds, frogs, lizards and worms.
I've learned much in the three years since the first pair made a home in an empty black plastic pot that my husband had attached to a tall bamboo pole.
That first nest was most unexpected. Ralph devised the pot-on-a-pole as a tool to pluck fruit from atop a leggy papaya tree. When not in use, his invention fit conveniently in a corner under the porch eaves. It was there -- in that protected resting spot -- that a pair of screech owls found it and proceeded to chip a circular hole into the pot's side to serve as a door. Needless to say, once we realized that the papaya gatherer had been re-engineered into an owl home, we abandoned all aims to secure ripe fruit with the tool. Instead, it remained propped against the porch wall where, although we had no way of seeing inside, we could easily hear every movement and vocalization the female owl made.
I was amazed that the owls succeeded in nesting in the papaya picker at all. Although we tried to make it more secure, the nesting pot remained precariously propped in a corner with nothing to stop a strong wind from knocking it over.
When nesting season ended, I was quick to take it away and put up the mailboxes. Unlike the propped-up picking pole, the mailboxes were intentionally set in place and far more solidly fastened. I didn't know if the owls would choose them for a home, but I hoped that some birds would.
Sure enough, one of the mailboxes must have met the screech owl seal of approval, because last year they moved in.
It's very special having owls living in such close proximity to human habitats. It's a rare chance to study a wild animal up close and become familiar with another creature's daily habits. When Toby came out to tell me the owl was in the garage I couldn't wait to see it for myself. Fortunately, by the time I finished up my chores and got home, the bird was still there, calmly perched by the garage door window. He seemed unfazed by the flash of my camera and surprisingly unperturbed by my presence. He remained in the garage until dark, changing perches twice before flying off in search of food.
I've read that screech owls return to a successful nest site year after year and that owls in the wild have been known to live for up to 13 years. That's good news in my ongoing quest for natural ways to control pests. By erecting a few potential bird-nesting stations, we not only gained the ability to observe wildlife at close range, but we also found a way to use beneficial critters to defeat problem ones. Our yard and house are freer from mice, cockroaches and mosquitoes thanks to spiders, bats and now screech owls, all of whom are hunters.
With our planet's health at such a perilous point, it's more essential than ever to decrease our dependency on pesticides and poisonous chemicals.
And if a byproduct of those efforts includes having a family of screech owls to listen to, watch and appreciate -- so much the better. If that's not something to hoot about, what is?