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Owls in the Salvia Garden

Oct 26, 2013

Owls in the Salvia Garden

Beginning in early winter and continuing through August, nightlife at Flowers by the Sea is a major hoot. Make that multiple hoots. We are home to a variety of owls all of which have somewhat different mating seasons. Owls are particularly noisy when seeking and trying to impress potential mates.

We enjoy the music they make and the work they do helping to minimize rodents, rabbits and skunks that might otherwise munch on many of our plants. Of course, rodents -- such as mice, voles and squirrels -- and other small wildlife don't normally like the taste of sages, but they can be a terror when it comes to other greenery.

Before setting flight into this story, we want to thank the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the environmental organization BirdNote for literally giving voice to the birds described here. Just click on the links for each owl to hear spectacular recordings of their calls.

Romance in the Gardens

By late autumn, one of our local species -- the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) -- is performing romantic duets, which are an overlapping of calls between a male and female. You can recognize great horned owls by their size as well as the two feather tufts, or horns, on their heads.

Great Horned Owl

By December, the night sky may quiet a bit, because these owls have found their mates. They bow to each other, rub bills and preen. Somewhere from January to early February, after an incubation period of about a month, their babies hatch.

Then the hooting lessens and is restricted to occasional communication between parent owls and raucous requests for food by their owlets. Although the parents remain mating pairs for many seasons, great horned owls live in separate locations except during mating season.

The cacophonous calls of owl courtship resume in February when it is time for the Barred Owl (Strix varia) to get with the program and bear a family. Barred owls sound spooky, especially when agitated and protecting their territory.

Barred Owl

At Flowers by the Sea, we also have a resident mating pair of Spotted Owls (Strix occidentalis), which are an endangered species. Spotted Owls can mate anytime from February to August.

Northern Spotted Owl

Real Estate for Owls

Not all owls live in trees. One small species that thrives in a suburban park a few hours south of us is the Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia). It's about 8 to 12 inches long versus the roughly 22-inch length of a Great Horned Owl. Burrowing owls live in underground dens, such as abandoned prairie dog holes. Unlike most owls, they are mainly active during the day.

Burrowing Owl

Our owls live high up in the trees of the California coastal forest surrounding our farm. But owls aren't nest builders; they occupy the abandoned nests of squirrels or large birds as well as holes in tree trunks and nest boxes that birders attach to trees and buildings.

Other owl nesting sites include abandoned buildings and platform-type structures. One pair of great horned owls made headlines in 2012 by nesting atop large commercial signage in a Colorado suburban strip mall.

A large population of barred owls lives in Charlotte, the largest city in North Carolina. Although the traditional understanding is that barred owls require old-growth forest, a 2007 study by University of North Carolina researchers concluded that the owls seem to think of the trees in long-established suburban neighborhoods as being old growth forests. The study increased the number of suburban barred owls by attaching nesting boxes to trees.

In Ohio, one suburban gardener installed an owl box only to have squirrels occupy it season after season. Then one day she discovered an Eastern Screech Owl ( Otus asio) family settled in.

How to Help Birds

Contributions to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and BirdNote aid protection of wild birds by furthering knowledge about a wide array of species. By taking action and supporting the work of these organizations, you help protect the world overall.

In Chicago, an amateur birder specializing in owls attached a bushel basket 20 feet up in an Osage Orange ( Maclura pomifera) tree, because a great horned owl was struggling to nest there -- an unusual choice for the species. By 2006 when Chicago Wilderness Magazine reported about the birder's work, the owl had nested in the basket for 10 years.

Some owls are more successful nesting in suburbia than in their native forest settings, according to Baylor University biology professor Fred Gehlbach. He notes that they are far from their normal predators and also benefit from backyard bird feeders and birdbaths. Who would have known?

But Gehlbach has studied the Eastern Screech Owl ( Otus asio) species in his suburban neighborhood in Waco, Texas, for the past 45 years, which makes him something of a creature of the night along with the owls.

A Dark Reverberation of Owls

We've read about owls perching on a front-door wreath and in an inner-city palm tree. We've seen them clinging to the railing of our deck and listened to their great hooting contests reverberating through our fields and forests.

Unlike Professor Gehlbach or farmers, most of the Western world is unaccustomed to spending lots of time outdoors at night listening to nature. Wildlife that whirs, swoops, soars, creeps through and otherwise inhabits the dark can be unsettling for many people. This is why owls inhabit the realm of Halloween stories.

But for us, owls are co-workers -- part of the ecological web that keeps our gardens in good order. If you have stories about owls or other wildlife to share, we would be happy to hear them. Give us a hoot anytime.

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