September 2, 2010 · Filed Under Events and News 

By Beth Kaufmann

I noticed him the first week of April, sitting on the wire running across the backyard from the house to the utility pole. Birds like to perch there to sing, squawk, fight, or hunt.  But this was different. It was 10 o’clock at night.  I’d never seen a bird sitting there then.  I walked back down the steps and stood underneath him, trying to figure out what kind of bird he was. He was about the size of a blue jay or morning dove, but with a dramatically bigger head—and he didn’t seem to mind my staring.

He wasn’t very big as owls go, but oh when he flew! Two sudden silent swift strokes and he was across the yard. It was several nights before I started seeing him regularly. Soon it became clear he wasn’t just hunting for food. He was protecting the nest he and his mate had chosen in our old mesquite tree, a high hollow cavity with an opening facing the back porch. Once in awhile I’d spy him scaling the trunk near the nest hole, looking like a sea captain pacing the deck of a ship. Many evenings he would be eerily perched high above in the mesquite tree, keeping watch. Occasionally I’d spot him on top of the wooden swing, sitting still as a piece of yard art. And he liked to sit on the wire where I originally saw him. He seemed to appear suddenly, and he was impervious to stares and sounds and our comings and goings.

I spotted his mate one April afternoon sitting on the edge of the cavity’s opening. Her speckled camouflage matched the mesquite tree perfectly. If the cavity didn’t face the porch, I would never have seen her. She had a sleepy look about her. And she was much more wary of activity than the male owl. I watched her stare down a spurious squirrel that was scrambling near her nest. Curiously, the owls didn’t seem to mind our big boisterous dog Beau. At night, Beau would stand under the telephone wire and bark incessantly at the male owl. The aloof owl would perch immobile during this canine harassment, then coolly glide back to the tree and resume his sentinel duties there.  Beau was barely a nuisance, much less a threat. This perplexed our dog immensely. He was used to doves, grackles, squirrels, cats, lizards, bees, geckos, cardinals, mockingbirds, dragonflies, and yellow jackets scurrying out of his way. These flying creatures were different! And so mysterious!

They became accustomed to my comings and goings in the mornings and evenings, especially when I refilled Beau’s water bucket near the tree at night. I would look up while holding the hose and chatting to Beau and there the mom would be, watching me.  Soon the babies appeared tentatively at the opening of the tree hole, teetering to catch a glimpse of me. One early evening I realized it was just the babies who were watching me, and I worried that the parents weren’t coming back.  But, just at dusk, mom and dad swooped back in to feed the clutch from their day of hunting, calling and chirping soothing sounds all the while.

Through online research I learned they were screech owls, the most nocturnal of owls. Their evening rhythmic call isn’t very loud, making their name something of a misnomer. They are small owls, feeding mostly on bugs, baby birds, and small rodents. We would watch them hunting at night, flying to and from the nest with morsels of moths and the like. One quiet Sunday morning we were able to lean out across the porch and take pictures of them.  They didn’t mind one bit.  They seemed to tolerate us, more than anything.  After all, they had chosen the cavity in the mesquite tree in our yard.

We had one unusual, unexpected encounter during the course of their stay. We opened the back door late one sunny Saturday afternoon and there in the middle of the yard was what looked like a fledging, splayed out on the ground. It must have fallen out of the tree. What do we do? Fortunately I was able to get Beau back inside before he spotted it, or he would have rumbled down the steps after it and by then it would have been too late.  We walked down the steps towards the garage, looking at it. It had its wings spread out sunning. It was mostly brown and bigger than I thought.  And she was virtually immobile. Only when we got within two feet did she stir, and in two sudden wing beats, she was off the ground and at the top of the photinias 15 feet away. So much for screech owls being nocturnal!  Apparently, mom had decided she needed some “down time.”

Within several weeks of spotting the fledglings, they left the nest.  It was bittersweet watching them climb out of the nest and up the mesquite trunk. They took to the air under cover of darkness.  For several weeks we’d hear the parents talking to them at night. I’d read that the parents help their offspring hunt for food for a couple months after they leave the nest. I still hear them skittering and chirping in the trees at night. Maybe it’s other birds I’m hearing and it’s just wishful thinking on my part.  Anyway, not too long ago Beau alerted us late one night to some critters in the pecan tree at the back corner of the lot near the alley. With the help of a flashlight, I discovered it was a mama raccoon and her young ins.  Oh, raccoons.  Everyone in Arlington Heights has seen raccoons.  But screech owls? That was a rare treat indeed!


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