Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Little owl is welcome barn guest

By David Horst  sandhill7@gmail.com

Put up a barn in the middle of an oak woods and you never know what might drop in.
We’ve had snakes and rabbits, swallows and phoebes, and one lone grouse on a stormy night.
Most recently, one of Wisconsin’s littlest owls paid a visit up on the sand hill we call home.
We spotted it up in the rafters of our metal llama barn. It was during that bitter cold spell. Not last week’s bitter cold spell. The bitter cold just before that.
We would walk in and the owl would be nowhere to be seen. Then we would look again and find it watching us from the rafters. These night predators have feathers built for silent flight.
Sometimes it would fly up to a small cavity where the roof meets the front wall of the barn and watch, half hidden, from there.
We were hoping that it was a she and that she was looking for a nesting spot. Owls are thinking about sitting on eggs already this time of year. If you pay attention at night and you’re near anything like a woods, you’ll probably the “woo-wo-wooo” of the great horned in love.
This part of Wisconsin has breeding populations of at least six species of owls, according to the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas. Most prevalent is the great horned. The barred owl is also fairly common, but less likely to be seen than heard. Its call reminds me of a dog barking in the distance.
Less common are the long-eared and short-eared owls. The occasional snowy passes through. Then there are the little guys – the eastern screech and the northern saw whet owl.
OK, I’m going to come clean here. In the first pictures I took of our owl, it had its ear-like tufts of feathers pressed down on its head. I thought we had a saw whet owl and identified it that way when I shared the photo with friends. They don’t know owls, so they didn’t question me.
Pictures I took another day showed the “ears” and eventually I figured out I had a problem. Pat Fisher, a bird rehabilitator who runs a nonprofit in New London called The Feather, confirmed for me that it was an eastern screech.
I’ve never seen either in the wild before – if you can call a llama barn wild.
The saw whet is about the same size as the screech, which stands seven or eight inches tall and has a wingspan of more than 20 inches. To confuse matters more, the eastern screech comes in two color phases – brown and grey – seemingly based on geography rather than age or season of the year. The guides I checked initially showed pictures of the screech in its brown phase. This bird was grey.
Screech owls nest almost exclusively in deciduous trees in cavities made by woodpeckers. This owl wasn’t willing to bend that exclusivity for us.
It was only around for about a week. When the weather warmed back up to tolerable, it was gone.
We never saw a second owl, so it lacked the vital ingredient to successful nesting. I suppose it is off looking for that now.
It was pretty special having a little owl for a guest. It also cut down on the number of mice we’ve seen skittering into dark corners.
Build a barn anywhere and you’re going to get them.

On the web:
Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas: www.uwgb.edu/birds
The Owl Pages: www.owlpages.com

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