Fences, Neighbors and Owls

A pair of new neighbors moved into our woodlot this spring. We hear them calling on and off during the day while they are resting until they fly off for night work. They repeatedly chatter to each other: “Hoo, hoo, who cooks for you?”

Owl pellets

I am curious about their diet. Scratching in the ground cover under their favorite tree, I looked for pellets regurgitated from indigestible food. I found several about an inch or two long and floated them in a bowl of water until they were soft for tearing to shreds between sharp points. The solid matter settled to the bottom of the bowl for identification, first by naked eye and then with the low-power lens of a dissecting microscope. I hoped there wouldn’t be evidence of small birds in their diet because we had two broods of bluebirds fledging from one nestbox and also a family of titmice from another box that might be tempting tidbits.

They were mostly eating insects. There was a jumble of legs up to the size of large cricket’s, as well as the hard chitinous protein of beetle elytra. I found the skull and femur of a vole. No feathers. Phew!

Jumble of undigested material

They often roost in a hackberry tree like a romantic pair perched side-by-side. To make our yard their base for months in springtime surely means they have family plans, or even a hidden brood. I guessed they had a nest in an old maple tree whose heartwood was rotted out to form an entrance hole nearly 20 feet up. The sticks and limp greenery poking out of the hole confirmed something was living there, but they never showed themselves.

Considering how most wildlife scoot off at first sight of us, regarding humans as arch-enemies or super-predators, owls are remarkably trusting. I can walk to within seven paces without disturbing them any more than rotating their heads through 180° to watch me go. But I make concessions to win their trust, meaning I saunter past looking nonchalantly and avoiding abrupt motion. I pretend not to notice them and never look them in the eye as a hunter does.

It is a moving experience to build a friendly relationship with a wild and beautiful creature. People rarely come into conflict with owls and they are beneficial for farmers and gardeners. People love them and we are introduced to the wise bird in story books and cartoons at early ages. But it wasn’t always so. In folk-lore they were depicted in a superstitious light and as harbingers of death, probably because they are beasts of the night.

Owls have few friends apart from us. Prey animals loathe them, of course, but so do other birds in our yard, regarding them in the same way as they do red-shouldered hawks. It’s an injustice when they haven’t committed crime against their feathered relatives. Whenever there is a tremendous cacophony of mocking birds, titmice, and blue jays outside I know the owls are in for a mobbing, and soon enough a murder of crows arrives to accuse our friends, who look like two thieves crossed on a horizontal branch. “Murder” is an apt collective noun for crows, whose bills are as sharp as spear points.  Shouting to scare them away is wasted effort. Crows are so smart they know the difference between a man carrying a gun and empty hands. Owls are not dumb and know when to retire from the bullies into dense cover.

Barred owl in our persimmon tree

As night workers, owls have eyes and ears for perceiving objects too faint for us to see and too slight to hear. I guess they long to open their pupils at the end of day after they were stopped down like camera lenses in daylight, and if birds have any sense of time I expect they look forward to when the yard falls quiet in the gloaming.

I remembered another amazing adaptation for their nightly patrols when I found a flight feather where they were preening. It was barred white and brown for camouflage (they were Barred Owls), but I was more interested in the leading edge because the vane was brushed into a delicate comb. Uniquely in owls, it reduces turbulence from air passing over the feather to muffle sound and perhaps even raise the pitch above the threshold for prey to hear. It “comes with gossamer softness,” wrote a birder with a poetic heart.

Since this post is about neighbors I was recalling some years ago when I had a row with the man next door after I erected a fence along our property line. He didn’t want it in his line of sight and didn’t know it was for good cause, because “good fences make good neighbors.” Our owls, like Mr. X, are no respecters of fences, but we are getting along with them and welcome their trespassing.

Next Post: Hail Yellowstone



By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Gosden

1 comment

  1. Speaking of a poetic heart, Roger: “gloaming” and “gossamer” used in the same short essay! I’ve always loved owls, so I’m quite glad you have some who have made your yard their home. One day I may catch a glimpse of the lonely one who converses with me pitifully from my back deck. Thanks!

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