For love of screech owls: 25 years of hosting owl families / by Michael Graves

My husband (Old John) and I have been hosts to screech owl families for about 25 years. The accommodation is a nesting box with a hole so the birds can have a room with a view.

 Screech Owlet

Screech Owlet

We got worried about the family in residency in the box a few days ago. The last time we had seen the mother owl in the hole was on Saturday, April 21st. When we didn’t see her Sunday or Monday, we figured the babies had fledged (not a good night for it because there was a major storm at about 2 am).  So, on Friday, April 20, after checking the hole several times a day, Old John went out to take down the owl house (we do NOT want to host squirrels). The next thing I knew he was telling me we had a problem.

He had discovered he couldn’t open the top of the nesting box. As he worked with it, he felt feathers. He figured one of the owls had died in the box so he carried the box to the back yard so he could bury any remains. Using pliers, he finally got the top open only to have a tiny owlet scurry out to try to hide itself in the mulch under an azalea. Old John was horrified.

I immediately called the Texas Wildlife Coalition, which has a Houston branch whose responsibility is to rehabilitate wild mammals, amphibians, and birds. After a conference with the person who answered the phone and then conferred with the bird specialist, it was decided to put the house back up in the tree and monitor it to see if the parent(s) appeared. If not, we’d have to take the baby to the wildlife people.

So, Old John went back out where he discovered that the owlet had tried to get back into the nesting box but had gotten stuck. Apparently, owls do not know how to back up. So, very, very carefully, he moved the little fellow backward into the box. The owlet then played dead. With the house cover back on, Old John gently raised the nesting box back into position in the tree.

We began our vigil at 6:40 pm. We were afraid we might miss a parent, especially because I suspect they observed the entire nesting box debacle. Staring at a hole in a box in a tree is tiring. I had to fight to stay awake. By 8 pm, it was dusk and I could no longer even see the hole. Old John thought he saw the baby in the hole so I sent him for the binoculars. I then sat for 20 minutes with the binoculars staring at the hole. At 8:20, we saw the flash of a wing (the underside is whitish) and then a clear view of a parent flying into the box. Voila! So the baby hadn’t been abandoned. We believe the parents will continue to feed it until it is big enough to fledge.

Epilogue: We are certain this is the second baby. Screech owls usually lay a second egg from several days to several weeks after the first (probably to ensure the survival of at least one owlet).

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 Editor’s note: This story has been submitted by Rosie Walker, with permission of her anonymous friend who is devoted to assisting wildlife survival in our urban environment.