Monday, May 9, 2011

Two owls strive for second chance at parenting

Mama screech owl with eggs in her recycled mailbox nest

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 9, 2011)

Screech owls are a hoot. I know this because I've been following one pair's antics for the past two months.

For the fourth consecutive year, a nesting couple of Eastern screech owls has returned to a recycled mailbox mounted under the porch eaves. If their chosen location were any closer to our house, it would be inside.

This is the second mailbox the diminutive owls have occupied. The first mailbox is also under the porch eaves but mounted lower, in a more exposed location. The female laid four eggs in that box, but three of the eggs fell out, at which point she abandoned the fourth.

It might be helpful to interject a few words about screech owl nest-building skills: They don't have any.

A screech owl nest is hardly a nest at all. The basic process is this: Find a hollow space. Claim it. Lay eggs. No laborious construction effort is required, and no soft, downy material is gathered. Although comfort isn't paramount, efficiency is. Screech owls make fast work out of finding a site so that they can get down to the important business of raising a family.

Hardwood trees are the most common nest location for screech owl nests. Cavities abandoned by flickers or pileated woodpeckers are particularly popular. I'm sure there are oaks in our woods containing screech owl nests, but I haven't sought them out because … well, I'm spoiled. The pair that has adopted our recycled mailbox has made bird watching so easy.

I can sit in my porch practically underneath the nesting female and listen to her shift about in her metal home. The female owl is a fidgety creature. I guess that's understandable when you spend all day and night inside a large tin can filled with nothing more than your accumulated eggs and whatever tidbits of food your devoted mate has deposited on your doorstep. Flying insects, moles, mice, lizards and spiders are among the edibles screech owls consume.

When the female fidgets, she makes the eggs roll, reminding me of balls in a bowling alley. Without a lip to hold them in, it's no wonder she lost three eggs from the first mailbox.

Eastern screech owls lay one egg every other day until a clutch of two to eight eggs (the average is four) is produced. Incubation lasts 28 days, counted from the time of the first egg. While screech owls mate for life, their partnership includes definite male/female roles. For instance, the male plays no part in the actual incubation. His job — and it's a job at which he excels — is to be a loyal protector and provider of food.

Every day, while his partner sits in her metal hothouse, Mr. Owl positions himself in one of three nearby perches, on a branch of a bottlebrush tree, in a clump of bamboo or next to the porch door. It is his job to sit there, less than 20 feet away from his family, to watch over and protect them.

A screech owl's small size — less than 10 inches tall and weighing under 8 ounces — makes it vulnerable. Predators include larger owls, raccoons, weasels, snakes and even blue jays. By spending his daylight hours so close to his mate with a clear view of her nest, the male owl is ready to thwart potential attacks. I have yet to see him defend his nest, but every day I watch him watch his surroundings.

The male's job description changes at night. Dusk signals the end of guard duty and the start of provider mode. A few days ago, I sat outside just before dark to see if I could watch the male owl leave his perch to catch food for his mate. I parked myself in a chair less than three feet from his perch and commenced waiting.

He saw me. I saw him. He didn't seem the least bit threatened or disturbed by my presence.

At one point, he stepped a few inches closer to the edge of his perch, a signal that flight time was imminent. I put my book down and focused all of my attention on the male screech owl. I consider myself an astute observer. Nonetheless, I missed his takeoff. An owl's flight is so fast and silent, even a mindful watcher can be caught unaware.

Being privy to the screech owls' steadfast devotion and unwavering patience reminds me of a nursery rhyme I learned long ago:

The wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he saw,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Why can't we be like
That wise old bird?

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