Backyard Owls

nesting screech owlWildlife encounters in urban areas, especially encounters with native animals in South Florida, can be challenging to come by. For me, this is a little depressing. So I do everything I can to increase my chances and I rely heavily on my yard. Three years ago I put an owl box up in one of my trees. For the first year, it sat empty aside from an occasional squirrel visitor or honey bee infestation. To be honest, I’d given up on the project. Then one day as I was gardening, I glimpsed something in the entrance to my box out of the corner of my eye. I assumed it was bees and went steaming over to evict the unwanted residents, but stopped dead in my tracks as one large eye opened, scornfully assessing the cause of her interrupted sleep.

Eastern Screech Owl! I did an inner jig as I looked at the beautiful, red owl occupying my now redeemed nest box. On a branch just above sat her equally attractive gray phase partner. I wanted them to be happy. I wanted them to come back year after year so I set about creating the best possible nesting situation for them. I stabilized their nest box after a wind storm jostled it, I shooed away disruptive neighbors, tiptoed quietly under their tree and even changed my routes a bit to give them peace. I also decided to help with their hunting efforts. I drove clear across town to buy my first ever pinkies, newborn mice, from a local pet store catering to snake fanciers.

I had second thoughts as I stared down at these helpless, hairless baby mice, but I wasn’t going to waiver. I had owls to feed. I placed a shallow, terra cotta planter near their tree that night and gingerly laid two writhing pinkies in the center. I snuck off into the shadows and hid behind the patio furniture with my camera, hoping to get a picture. Seconds turned to minutes turned to me fidgeting. Was this even going to work? I tried taking a test shot of the feeding platform and my camera refused. I fussed with the settings and tried again. And again. And again. Nope, not going to happen. It was simply too dark and I didn’t want to scare off my hard-won owls with flashes. I retreated and was rewarded not long thereafter, although not photographically, with glimpsed shadows of movement and vanished pinkies. This was as good as it got the first year. Periodically I left sacrificial pinkies and, if it was dark and I was well out of range, my gifts were accepted. A healthy baby was reared and then my owls disappeared as abruptly as they arrived.

This year I was optimistic. My little male began haunting my yard in late December, his incessant calls filling the air night after night. I was sure my bid had been successful and that they’d be back in my owl box in no time. But weeks passed and only squirrels occupied the box. I coaxed the squirrels elsewhere and added more box options, but the calls became less frequent and from further away. Desperate, I bought a few feeder mice – small, but fully furred this time. I found a pedestal table that the mice couldn’t leave and I put it out under their nest box from last year with one scampering prey offering. I was going to get my owls back AND I was going to get a picture this year. I left my bribe under the surveillance of both an infrared camera trap and a Go Pro camera and watched from darkness within my house. Nothing happened. I tired of waiting and busied myself with chores, anxiously checking my bait from the darkened window from time to time. I noted that the Go Pro batteries had died, but the mouse remained. I decided not to disturb things; there was still a camera trap so I let it be. Just before heading to bed I ventured outside. The mouse was gone. I enthusiastically checked my camera trap and was crestfallen. The only pictures were awful ones of me staring perplexedly at the lens as I determined whether it was working.

The next night I tried again. This time I used a playback tape to attract my little friend to the yard. Convinced it hadn’t worked, I turned my back and headed inside, just long enough to miss the action. By the time I checked out the window moments later, the bait was gone. I rushed to check my cameras and was forced to acknowledge that it was too dark for the Go Pro to film anything and my owl was clearly too small to trigger my camera trap. Did I dare try a light? What was the worst that could happen? The owl wouldn’t come? I reassured myself that I could always just turn the light off if it didn’t work.

The next night I added a reading lamp to my set up. I played the playback tape and stared intently at the forlorn mouse. To my surprise, the red owl swooped down into the spotlight, grabbed the mouse and was gone. It all happened quickly. I would’ve missed it if I’d blinked, but the missing mouse was evidence that it hadn’t been my imagination. I rushed to download my Go Pro and confirmed that the owl had come, but momentary blur was all that the camera had captured. It was hardly satisfactory. I really needed to get a shot with my DSLR camera.

As I walked out to set up the next night, a shadow caught my eye. I looked closely and did the same internal jig I had done the year before. There she was, peering out of my woodpecker box. They were back. My ploy was working! With a new spring in my step, I laid out my offering and retreated far enough to be out of the light but close enough to try my DSLR. I’d barely sat down when the female swooped from her perch, snagged the mouse and disappeared into the shadows. My shoulders sank as I headed over to switch off my light. I’d missed the moment. This just wasn’t working. As I reached the lamp, something landed in the tree beside me, in a branch merely three or so feet away. I looked up and found the red owl watching me intently. She was clearly unafraid and seemed to be asking for more. What harm could it do? She probably wanted one for her mate. I went back into the house and grabbed my last mouse. I placed it on my stage and scurried to my seat. Once settled, I glanced down to be sure my camera was ready for another fleeting performance. I looked up and did a double-take. The red owl was already back, sitting in the spotlight with mouse clutched firmly in one foot. Fearful that I’d already missed the moment, my finger involuntarily slammed the shutter button. As if in response to the clicking sound, the owl looked straight up at me. She didn’t flee though. She sat there for several minutes, looking around, rubbing her beak through the mouse’s fur, contemplating life it seemed. And then the encounter was over. She took her prey and disappeared. I had a picture and the owls apparently decided they had a pretty good pet human.screech owl with mouse

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8 Responses to Backyard Owls

  1. danoha says:

    Bravo Kirsten! Great photos by the way. Love the owl story and thank you for “enlightening” me with the owl box and telling me where to get one. Owls havent been revered as mythological creatures for thousands of years without good reason! I think your story above remains pretty consistent with their “myth”.

  2. ellyvan says:

    This is beautiful, and I love reading your story.

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    • Kirsten says:

      Thanks so much! As a follow-up, our baby owl recently fledged. The nest box is empty, but they’re still coming in for mice feedings!

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