Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Owl Nest

We hear barred owls in our neighborhood a lot. I’ve heard a male hooting like a monkey in the woods next to the tennis courts at the town park. I’ve seen barred owls in two or three widely-distant places on big tracts of land the Aquarion water company owns. And we see them and hear them near our house all the time, especially in late summer and early fall.

For weeks now we’ve heard a squeal or screech, starting on a low pitch and rising for second or two, coming from the woods just beyond one of our stone walls, and we all assumed it was a barred owl. I didn’t see it however until I went to find it last week, and then yesterday Gina was working in the garden and happened to look in the direction of the squealing to see a barred owl fly into a cavity high in a northern red oak about 15 yards from the stone wall and only 40 or 50 yards from our house. My son, Kaare, and I later walked over there and stood beneath it for a few seconds, and heard a squeaking noise coming from the hole.

I can’t tell for sure what’s going on in there but my guess, based on a quick read of my various bird books, is that the female is incubating and that the bird we occasionally see is the male coming and going with food for the female. Incubation takes about a month and then the nestlings need another six weeks to fledge. One of the ways birders find active owl nests is to look for feathers and pellets and droppings near the base of a tree, but the area around the black oak is clean still, which might mean the eggs haven’t hatched yet. If so, we have a long time of owl noise and activity to look forward to.

Barred owls are not at all uncommon in New York, but they are not suburban birds. Here’s what the 1986 edition of The Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State says about habitat requirements:

Unlike the Great Horned Owl, which shows toleration for fragmented forests and woodlots, the Barred Owl seems to prefer larger unbroken woodlands, either coniferous or deciduous, and often mixed with sufficient old growth to provide suitable nesting trees. … Eaton noted that this owl “breeds wherever it finds swampy woods or forests of sufficient extent to secure it protection from its one great enemy, civilized man.”

The fact that a pair is nesting so close to our house might mean that the population in this town is dense enough to force birds to find nests in locations that are less than prime. Or it might mean that even though we have three-acre zoning, we’ve kept the woods sufficiently intact to allow barred owls to nest. Either one is good news to me.



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