Bird Watcher's General Store

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Nesting Owls

Baby screech-owls…maybe.

Owls have become popular recently and as a result, we have been selling lots of owl nest boxes. I like that, but since owls are active after dark, it’s hard to know if these boxes are actually being used. With that in mind, here’s what is going on with the owl boxes in my yard. Perhaps it will shed some light on everyone else’s owl boxes, but not too much light. Owls hate light.

Five years ago, I hung a screech-owl box on a post in my backyard. (The post was part of an old swing set, but ever since my kids learned to drive, they’ve stopped using the swings. Go figure.) For the first year the box saw absolutely no action. It remained empty until the second spring, when we spotted a lone owl looking out of the hole. After a couple of days it disappeared and didn’t return. Thinking the location might be the problem, I set out a second box, only this time I put it on the side of a tree (just in case the owls hated swings for some reason). Once again, there wasn’t much action…until this year. Based completely on circumstantial evidence, I think I finally have owls nesting in the box on the tree. But as usual, before I share the story, I need to tell everyone a bit about screech-owls.

Not much larger than a sweet potato, the little Eastern Screech-Owl is fairly common on Cape Cod. But don’t expect to hear any bloodcurdling screeches, as this bird’s vocalizations consist of cute trills and whinnies. Like other owls, screech-owls don’t build their own nests; instead, they “borrow” old woodpecker homes and other natural cavities. They’ll also come to properly designed birdhouses…if you’re lucky. One of the fun things about screech-owls is that they will use a box anytime of year, not just during the breeding season. In early fall or in the dead of winter you can see the face of a little owl looking out of the entrance hole, enjoying the afternoon sun. The Eastern Screech-Owl is also our only owl that comes in two color morphs. We have gray screech-owls and red (rufous) screech-owls. The color has nothing to do with age or sex, but it has everything to do with my story.

For most of this past winter, I have been seeing a gray-colored owl looking out of the “swing” box. Based on previous years, I assumed that come spring, the bird would leave and fly off to its breeding territory. Where is this breeding territory? Beats me. I just know that it has never been my yard. But this year was different. As February turned into March, the gray owl was still in the swing box. Meanwhile, the box on the tree remained unoccupied, or so I thought.

As with most things that have to do with backyard birds, squirrels can be a problem. Owl boxes are no exception. One afternoon in mid-March, a squirrel approached the empty tree box and decided it would be a good place to spend the night. Bad idea. The second the squirrel poked its nose into the box, it immediately bolted out again. What evil had frightened the squirrel so badly? A few minutes later I found out when a red-morph owl pushed its face out of the hole. Whoa! For the first time ever I had two screech-owls in my yard. A gray owl was in the swing box, while a red one was on the tree box. This proves I had an owl couple in my yard, right? No, it proves nothing. As I mentioned earlier, the bird’s color is unrelated to gender. I could have two males or two females and there was no way to tell. After a few days, the red owl stopped appearing and the gray owl was once again the only one I saw. By the way, owl couples don’t shack up. So, if you think the red owl was cuddling in the same box with the gray owl, forget it.

At first I was bummed, but then I started piecing things together. What if the red owl was, in fact, a female and was still in the box on the tree? That’s a nice thought, but why wouldn’t she (I’m calling the red one “she” now) sit and look out of the hole each evening, like the gray owl continued to do? My hunch was she didn’t look out because she was too busy…sitting on eggs. Could she be on eggs? Maybe, but I had no way to prove it. Then, I got lucky.

The books say that female Eastern Screech-Owls lay their eggs around mid-March and incubate them steadily for the next four weeks. This would explain why she stopped looking out of the hole at sunset. The gray owl (the male, for the sake of my theory) continued to look out because he had nothing he needed to sit on. The books also say that once each evening, just after dark, the female will leave the box for about twenty minutes, in order to cough up a pellet and be fed by the male. After that, she goes back to incubating for the rest of the night. That evening, right after Jeopardy, I grabbed my binoculars, went to the window and stared out into the darkness. (My wife saw me standing there, but she’s learned not to bother asking questions. Good idea. ) I didn’t have to stand for very long. Five minutes into my vigil, I watched a small owl fly out of the darkness and into the box. Eureka! Based on all available evidence (and wishful thinking), I think I have a red-morphed Eastern Screech-Owl sitting on eggs in one of my nest boxes. This is so exciting.

A few weeks from now, when I finally see the babies looking out of the hole, I’ll give everyone an update. Although, if my bold prediction turns out to be a false alarm and there are no baby owls after all, I’ll never mention this story again. I’ll pretend none of this ever happened…just like my wife does when she sees me staring out into the darkness with binoculars.