Tallahassee Democrat (FL)
Thu, Feb. 24, 2005
Owls above us
It's a wild world

Story and photo by Sandy Beck

Lying in bed the other night, I was nearly lulled to sleep by the deep, sweet exchange of two barred owls. But the calm suddenly deteriorated into a cacophony of hooting, barking and monkey-like screaming as a gang of usurping owls invaded the forest.

Many of us who live in swampy or heavily wooded areas, especially near streams and rivers, are familiar with these wild and raucous nights of territory claiming and reclaiming that precede the barred owls' courtship, mating and nesting season that begins in February or March.

Ten years ago, Jon Johnson, executive director of St. Francis Wildlife, rescued, raised and released two unrelated orphaned barred owl babies. Not only did they pair-bond and decide to stay at the wildlife refuge, but they also claimed a coveted piece of owl real estate, a hollow tree next to Jon's cabin.

Because owls, like most birds of prey, mate for life, Jon has had an annual, front-row seat for their courtship and mating rituals.

"It begins with the male, who is smaller, calling to the female with a soft cooing sound (hoo, hoo, hoo). Next, to prove that he can be a good provider, he flies in with a small offering - a mouse, frog or snake - and lands on a branch about 10 feet away. He transfers the mouse from his beak to his feet and again calls softly. He's quiet for two reasons. He doesn't want to surprise her when she's in defense mode, and he also doesn't want to attract attention.

"When she acknowledges him with the same soft sounds, he flies to the tree cavity with the mouse."

This if often followed by the male's Fred Astaire impersonation. He sways back and forth, raises his wings and does the two-step along a branch until he reaches her and sweeps her off her feet with a "kiss" - actually, just preening around the face.

"When he's not hunting, he stays on a branch 10 or 20 feet above the nest on a nearby tree. From this vantage point he can head off an intruder, like an opossum or raccoon, by swooping at it from behind on silent wings and grazing it with one or two of his rear talons."

The parents incubate two or three eggs for approximately one month. At four to five weeks of age the owlets become "branchers." Perched on limbs near the nest, they flap their wings and strengthen their flight muscles.

Occasionally, an owlet will lose his footing. When people find these birds on the ground, they often pick them up and take them to St. Francis Wildlife.

"The best thing to do if you find a fallen brancher is to temporarily place it in a box where it will be safe from predators and call St. Francis Wildlife," Johnson says.

"If it hasn't been injured I usually return the baby to where it was found. I look for a nearby tree with a lot of limbs, use a ladder to place the baby on a low limb and leave. When I return later to check on him, he's usually 20 feet higher in the tree where the parents will begin feeding him again. If he hasn't moved I assume that he is weak and take him to back to St. Francis Wildlife."

The owlets fly when they are about 6 weeks old but stay with their parents for several more weeks while they learn how to hunt.

Three other species of owls are found year-round in North Florida - the great horned, barn and screech owls. In recent years, the burrowing owl has been slowly migrating northward from South and Central Florida. Two Northern species, the short-eared and long-eared owls, are occasional winter migrants.

Any of our native owls might take up residence in your yard if they feel safe there. Barred, barn and screech owls will not nest where there are free-roaming domestic cats. Great horned owls, however, which often take animals as large as skunks, may kill a cat.

Owls don't build nests as most birds do. They borrow hawks' nests or use tree cavities. The best way to attract owls to your yard is to leave standing snags (dead trees). Smaller cavities created by woodpeckers are suitable for little screech owls, and larger ones, created when branches fall away, are in great demand by owls.

Where snags are scarce, some owls will readily use nest boxes. For nest-box plans, visit www.StFrancisWildlife.org and select "Create a backyard refuge."

One advantage of having raptors as neighbors is their efficient, natural pest-control service, in contrast to slow-acting rodenticides, like d-CON, which also can take the lives of many other wild animals, including owls.

But to me, our woods suddenly resonating with barred-owl calls is one of nature's greatest gifts.

Sandy Beck serves as education director with the St. Francis Wildlife Association, a local, nonprofit organization founded in 1977 to provide humane care and rehabilitation for all species of sick, injured and orphaned wildlife in North Florida and South Georgia. To learn more, visit www.stfranciswildlife.org.

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