Woods, Waters and Wildlife

Backyard critters

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You might say my wife, Vicky, and I are easily entertained.

Most May evenings at about dusk, we can be found sitting quietly on the back deck, staring across the narrow back yard at a tallow tree by the fence. One of us will usually have binoculars, the other a camera. Attached to the tree is a box a little over a foot tall, and maybe nine or 10 inches wide. In the upper third of it is a round hole, just big enough for a small bird to enter. It’s called a “screech owl nesting box.”

Does it attract eastern screech owls (Megascops asio)? To be sure. It was a birthday present for Vicky one November. The following spring, we saw an adult owl enter it. That was nearly 20 years ago.

The owls have used it almost every spring. Squirrels trespass often and could dissuade the owls. One year, we saw an owl/squirrel confrontation. It was short-lived, but the wing-flapping and squawking definitely sent the squirrel a-packing.

This is the time of year (May) when we notice the owls. We hear their trilling call regularly, so know they stay in the neighborhood. Instead of “Who, WHOO, who, WHOO,” like bigger owls, the little screech owls have a call more like a murmur than a screech. It’s a multi-syllable call softly uttered, almost whispered in staccato, rapidly cooed cadence – an eerie, mellow, muted trill. It’ a beautiful, plaintive call, probably motivated out of loneliness.

Males usually bring food to the babies. There are usually two little owlets; sometimes one or two more. Preferred foods are roaches, insects, lizards, geckos, and mice and rats.

Our fireplace woodpiles attract cotton rats. Nearby birdseed feeders also encourage rodents. We trap ‘em to control the population. After we started seeing the screech owls, we began putting the trapped rats on top of the owl house. They were usually gone by morning.

After one productive trapping season, we ran out of rats. One evening after a couple of days of no food atop the owl house, I stepped out on the deck, and there were four screech owls sitting on the railing just a few feet away, looking at me like “Where’s our dinner?”

Screech owls can become fairly sociable with people, if you don’t frighten them. Another time, we had one light on a rafter above our covered patio. It just sat there unafraid, watching us celebrate the end of another workday. With wildlife, too much familiarity with humans can become dangerous. That hasn’t happened, except for these related accounts.

The little one pictured has become accustomed to us enough so that we can approach within a few feet of the tree as it peers out the opening. That’s a sign that he’s curious about the world outside his nest box. One day soon he’ll spread his little wings.

It won’t be long before we’ll be “empty nesters” … again. Life goes on.

Perhaps it’ll return someday … feeding another little one.

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