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NATURE HAPPENINGS - April 2002

April’s Owls
by Damian Fagan

Mr. Fagan I’m not sure what the drivers think. Their headlights illuminate a lone figure standing beneath an old gnarled tree growing in the middle of Moab. The figure’s head is tilted upwards, as if he is looking for something in the crystalline heaven above. But he isn’t looking that far away.

The next set of headlights catches the figures with lips pursed, and if the car windows are rolled down, the driver might catch an accelerating series of toots emanating from the lone figure. Weird? Perhaps. But then again, I wish they would turn off their headlights - it ruins my night vision. The reason for my behavior is simple - I’m trying to call in an owl that lives within an old woodpecker hole high up in this gnarled tree.
The owl I’m after is a seven-ounce terror to small rodents, songbirds and insects. Better known as the western screech owl, this nocturnal dweller has eluded my observation for several weeks. But tonight, the gig is up.

Western screech owls don’t screech very often. In fact, it is very rare to hear this type of vocalization. Normally, I only catch their series of hollow whistles punctuated by a quick trill piercing the darkness. Like most owls, the screech owls call is of the low-frequency variety for better long distance, night-time communication.

Other features that enable these birds to conduct their business in the dark are their proportionally large heads that house eyes designed for low-light levels; acute hearing due to parabolic-shaped facial discs that channel sound into ear openings; and long, soft feathers designed for stealth flight. During the day, their cryptic coloration helps them blend into their surroundings to avoid detection by larger, diurnal raptors.

Though there are about four species of owls that nest within a couple miles of my Moab City home, the screech owl seems best adapted to life in the urban community. Though preferring a tree hollow or an old woodpecker cavity for their nest site, screech owls readily take to nest boxes if no natural nesting site exists.

In their protective cavities, the female owl usually lays 4-5 white, oval eggs. She is also the primary incubator, although the male will provide food for his mate while she incubates the eggs. After about 26 days, the eggs hatch, and in another month, the young will be able to fly.

For their first few weeks of life outside of the nest, the young will learn to hunt from their parents. Insects, mice, grasshoppers, moths, songbirds, lizards, toads, scorpions, all may find themselves on the nighttime menu. Sometimes one can find the young gathered together, balancing on a tree limb or roof peak, awaiting parental instructions. Occasionally a home owner finds a terrorized cat spinning wildly in the yard trying to shake the bare-back rider who has mistaken the cat for a potential source of food.

So some night this April, go stand outside your house. Listen for the soft whistled notes of the screech owl or, if you live near the surrounding cliffs, the deep whooos of a great horned owl. Imagine the screech owl, head bobbing (because their eyes are fixed within their sockets and cannot move independently) listening for the faint sounds of mice moving across the fields or the wing beats of a moth. Captured prey equates to food for its mate sitting on eggs in some tree cavity. On the return flight the owl must dodge cars and power lines and prowling cats, hazards of urban living. And if you are like me, you’ll wish that people would dim their headlights as they round the corner and illuminate you standing in your yard with your head tilted upwards listening for those accelerating toots.

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