Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Screech Owls Find Essex Home
January 27, 2018
By Steve Grinley
Our good friend and fellow birder, Phil, gave us an appropriate house- warming gift: a screech owl box. It was appropriate because the town of Essex seems to be full of screech owls. There are multiple boxes placed in yards around town, including in the yards of a couple of our close neighbors.
We have seen owls roosting in some of these boxes on multiple occasions. We know about some that have nested and produced young. There are, or have been, screech owls roosting in numerous natural cavities around town as well, including one right along Route 133. I often see that one in the morning on my way to work.
Phil came over to our house one morning last week to put up our new box in the backyard. I took out my twenty-foot ladder and he supplied the rest of the necessary materials. We picked a tall hickory tree with few lower branches so the owl would have easy flight access and the squirrels would not be able to jump to the front of the box.
We faced the box so that a roosting owl would get the afternoon sun. Phil attached a loop high on the trunk and we hoisted the box high up with a rope. He then secured the box to the tree with long screws.
As we were doing this, we heard a creature squealing from near the deck where we have all of our bird feeders. As Phil and I turned to see what was happening, a small hawk came rushing by us, heading for the woods with a screeching starling clasped tightly in its talons! Nice!
As the hawk went by with the struggling starling, we could see that it was an adult sharp-shinned hawk. We watched as it landed on the ground about fifty yards into the woods. It was obscured by a stone wall and some thick shrubs, but several crows had heard the commotion and surrounded the raptor and its prey.
Eventually the squeal of the starling ceased, only to be replaced by the loud caws of the murder of crows that were hoping for a free meal. We proceeded with our task at hand and the background noise subsided. By the time we finished, the hawk must have flown off with its prey and the crows had dispersed.
As Phil tossed some wood shavings into the house and closed the front, he quipped, “Just add owl!” Our task was done, and now we all just had to hope that an owl would find the new house and accept the new accommodations.
Margo and I headed over to Cape Ann that afternoon to do some birding. When we arrived home just after dusk, we stepped out of the car to the whinny of a screech owl in the woods near our driveway. I pulled out my iPhone and opened an app to play a short screech owl call. In less than a minute, I could make out the silhouette of the little owl perched on a branch above me! Now if he (or she) would just find the new box that we provided!
The next morning, I awakened before dawn and I glanced out at the box. It was still too dark to see anything in the hole. I picked up our binoculars and I could see a form in the hole. I still couldn’t be sure if it was an owl or a squirrel. After a few minutes, it was light enough to see that it was a red morph screech owl peering out the hole! I woke Margo and she smiled as she saw the owl through the binoculars. I texted Phil, “Owl added!”
Later, while speaking with the local man, Scott, who made the box and many others around town, he said that we now have the record for the quickest occupancy after erecting a box. The previous record was three days!
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