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Nesting Screech Owls Confirmed

Owl nest update:

Way back in mid-April, I reported on the likelihood of screech-owls nesting in one of my boxes. Circumstantial evidence supported this possibility, but concrete proof was hard to come by. After all, this wasn’t like watching a cardinal family in the nearby lilac bush. The owl box is high up in a tree and since the female only leaves it after dark, there is no way to count the eggs (if there are any) or to know if they’ve hatched. It’s like trying to solve a mystery…with very few clues. But there were clues.

When screech-owls are roosting in a box, which they may do throughout the year, they typically sit and look out the “window” an hour before sunset. It’s the owls’ version of lying in bed trying to shake off the cobwebs before getting ready for work. During this time the bird doesn’t move much. It just sits still, totally lethargic, with its eyes half shut, looking like a tiny feathered stoner. The owl in our box behaved differently. Instead of appearing an hour before sunset, this owl (a red female) stayed deep inside the box until it was almost totally dark. Then she’d pop up full of energy, ear tufts erect, eyes wide open and a fierce expression on her face. It was like watching a creature ascend from the nether world. With a stern and aggressive expression, the bird looked around for a few seconds before flying off into the dark. After that we didn’t see her until the next evening, when the whole process repeated itself. Where did she go? Was she off hunting? Were there eggs or chicks in the box? We had no way of knowing what was going on. Then the moon came out.

Folks might not remember, but late April and early May was a time of rain, clouds and gloom on Cape Cod. Each day seemed darker than the one before. Early one morning, around 3:00AM, I was awakened by something unusual…a bright moon. I jumped out of bed and with the help of the moonlight, and my binoculars, I could see the owl box. Sweet! After watching for only a few minutes, I saw an adult screech-owl fly across the backyard and land on the opening of the nest box. But instead of going inside, it immediately turned and flew away again. Why did the bird leave so quickly? I decided that it must have dropped off food for hungry chicks. I was now certain we had baby owls. I yelled the news to my wife, but at 3:00AM she wasn’t nearly as excited about it as I was. She just mumbled something back at me. I wasn’t sure what she said, but it sounded like it was coming from the nether world.

Every evening, at exactly 8:00, we would stop what we were doing (which was usually washing the dinner dishes), pick up our binoculars and by 8:02 the female owl would briefly appear in the opening before flying off. One night, in the tree above the box, a Mourning Dove sat still and watched what was going on below. At 8:02, as usual, the female owl left the box and flew to a nearby cedar tree. At this point, the dove took to the air and headed for the same cedar tree. This was a problem because the “dove” turned out to be a Merlin (a fearless falcon). Uh-oh! In the world of avian predators, there is no such thing as professional courtesy. A bird of prey will eat anything it can catch, even another bird of prey. The little owl could be in trouble. After a short debate with myself, I got a flashlight and went out to search for feathers or other signs of trouble under the cedar tree. Fortunately, I found nothing beneath the tree, except cedar needles. Phew!

For the next few weeks we never missed the 8:02PM owl show. It was a short show, but we looked forward to it. Then there was a change in the program. As usual, the female left the nest box at the customary time, but on this night I stayed and watched the box for a few minutes longer. I was hoping to see the female return with food. That didn’t happen, but I did see another owl moving inside the box. This owl was gray, so it must have been the male. I watched until the gray owl pushed its head out of the hole. It wasn’t the male owl at all. Instead, it was a super-fuzzy baby screech-owl. OMG! Like a total psycho, I screamed for everyone to come to the window. The next few seconds should have been rehearsed ahead of time, because we almost killed each other trying to look through the window at the same time. And even though my wife is shorter than I am, she still managed to block my view. While my wife and I were pushing and shoving, Casey simply took his camera to a different window and got some great shots. (Don’t you hate it when your kids are more mature than you are?)

The evening owl show now had a new star. Whenever the female left the nest, a beyond-cute baby would quickly take her place in the window. The literature tells us that when it’s time for the owlets to fledge, the parents will start calling for them. On the night we heard the adult owls calling, we knew our two-month adventure with Eastern Screech-owls was coming to an end. The next night we were at the window at 8:00, but the entrance to the nest box sat empty. It was empty the next night, too. Sigh! The owl family didn’t need our box any longer. They had moved on. It was a fun couple of months and I hated to see the birds leave, but it was time. The babies had to learn how to become independent owls and I had to get back to dealing with the other important things in my life, such as washing the dirty dinner dishes. They were really starting to pile up.