Tuesday, May 13, 2008

New Suburban Dwellers

Owls get the jump on song birds as far as courting, nesting and feeding young are concerned. While most owls are cavity nesters, great horned owls have been photographed in February sitting on their open nests with their heads and backs sprinkled with snow.

Many owls nest as early as January and February. This early nesting is thought to concern food for the nestlings. By nesting early and with an incubation period of around 28 days and a fledgling period of about five weeks, this gives the small birds and animals that nest later just enough time for their young to be out of the nest and den to become food for the young owls.

Some of the delicacies fed to the young owls are mice, rats, frogs, lizards, small snakes, squirrels, young rabbits and small birds.

My favorite is the barred owl. In my early years it was the barn owl because the barn owl and I were friends in my childhood.

It was a windless winter night, soft and lightly scented, when the first piercing call of the barred owl in the predawn darkness snaps us awake. A barred owl and his "to-be" visit our neighborhood in a courting mood, for the air is filled with loud, spine-chilling calls by both sexes. Their voices are different, one being higher pitched than the other. We listen to the weird love calls and spectral outbursts for some 40 minutes.

From the dark shadows of the night they hoot again and again, answering each other with an almost musical rhythm, rock singers of the owl world. Their vocal displays are most awesome and exciting, deafening, booming and boisterous. The alternating hooting of a pair of these owls will keep one awake as long as they remain in the neighborhood.

They quiet down for a moment. Then eerie yells commence . . . loud, wild and uncanny. Then as if in a playful mood, maniacal laughter; interspersed with mere chuckles, softens their harsher calls.

The barred owl is a noisy bird at all seasons except when there are babies in the nest hole . . . then it is more quiet. Young remain in the nest for about four or five weeks. At this age, young are able to come out of the nest and move about among the branches, but are yet unable to fly. They are fed by their parents for several weeks after they are climbing about on branches around the cavity.

Known as a forest-loving bird, living in deep, dark woods, heavily wooded swamps and river banks, or thick growths of tall, dense pines, the barred owl spends most of the day sleeping and resting up for the night's ventures. The big round-headed, gray-brown owl is barred crosswise on the breast and streaked lengthwise on the belly. His large brown eyes are surrounded by big gray disks. His back is spotted with white. The sexes dress alike.

In North Augusta, SC, we know of a barred owl's nest deep in the hollow of a snag where people mill around under the tree all day. Sometimes he will peek out at you with one eye. Less than a century ago the barred owl was known as a bird of the deep solitudes. Along river and lake shores where there was a large, dense growth of trees and thick vines, there you found the barred owl.

The 20th century's population explosion, along with the paving of America's forests, wood lots, river banks and swamps, has brought this big owl into the suburbs where we can enjoy him now.