Monday, October 12, 2015

Hedwig would approve

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, birds, owls, natural history, memoirs

I don't really know much about owls, but I know more than I did a few days ago. I just finished reading The House of Owls by Tony Angell, a fascinating mini-memoir about living with owls nesting in the yard, and a great explanation of the lives of owls in all their variety. About half the book is narrative descriptions and anecdotes about the 19 species of owl found in the United States.

Tony Angell is a premier sculptor, painter and sketcher of animals and birds, particularly owls. The book includes about 100 of his drawings. During a long career that included much work in wildlife rehabilitation, it seems he has had in hand one or more owls of every one of the 19 American species.

To many people, owls are scary, and some think they are dangerous or in competition with us for some resource or other. Not at all. Few people know that only the two or three largest owls are capable of catching your pet cat or dog, and those live in pretty remote places. The ordinary "hoot owl" you hear in the woods probably weighs no more than half a pound. The world's largest, the female Eurasian Eagle-Owl, can weigh as much as 10 lb (4.5 kg), while the largest American owl weighs no more than half that. Among large owls, males, who do most of the hunting, weigh about 70% as much as their mates. No bird can fly while carrying more than about 1/3 of its weight, so no owl is going to fly off with Fluffy or Spot in its talons.

I was fascinated with the little insect-eating owls, primarily the Elf Owl of the American southwest and western Mexico. They are about the size of a Chickadee, and weigh just over an ounce, perhaps 33 grams. These little cactus-dwellers eat mainly insects and other "bugs", including scorpions. They are one of a handful of owl species that can pounce on a scorpion and nip off its stinger before being stung. Scorpions are big and meaty, so they make a good meal, particularly if you're only about twice their size. One just has to know how to handle the prey. Imagine, you or me tackling a scorpion the size of a Chessie or a Collie!

The diet of most owls consists mainly of small mammals, such as mice, voles, and shrews for Barn Owls and others of similar size, and rats, squirrels, and young rabbits for some of the bigger owls. A wise farmer or rural gardener will encourage owls on their property. A Barn Owl or Screech Owl (Western or Eastern) needs to eat one or two mouse-size critters daily. When an owl couple has a female on the nest, the male must catch one for him, one for her, for the first 25-30 days, then add at least one per hatchling for the next 30-60 days, until the young are independent. So, during the season that the little pests are multiplying even faster than rabbits, the owls are reaping the bounty, to the tune of 10-20 daily, for a month or two, per owl family. And by late summer, however many of those young owls are still alive (many, many die before the snow flies), every owl in the neighborhood is devouring 30-60 pesky little critters monthly.

If nothing is eating the mice in your neighborhood, then what? You need to buy lots and lots of mouse traps! I don't know about you, but I don't re-use a mouse trap. You can't clean the odor of freshly-dead mouse from a snap trap, so, according to the package directions, I toss trap and mouse (or vole) into the trash. And set a new trap, because another critter will be along soon. Can you guess that no owls live in the nearby patch of woods? I've never heard them in the neighborhood.

Owls that live near our towns are all threatened or endangered. Most use cavities, usually last year's woodpecker nest, to nest in and raise their chicks. Woodpeckers don't excavate nests in living trees, only in "snags". So don't clean out all the "dead wood" from that nearby forest lot. It is far from dead, until it falls over of itself. The chapters that discuss the natural history of the 19 American owls tell what kinds of threats they face, and tell a little about how to make a more favorable space for them. Some owls will take to nest boxes, if you make the entry hole the right size. I've found, when caring for bluebird and swallow boxes on a wildlife project, that some birds will peck the opening larger. Starlings are famous for that. Sometimes squirrels will do so also. So we either replaced the front of the box every couple of years, or added a metal front to the box, thick enough metal so a squirrel or starling couldn't open up the hole any larger.

Tony Angell has such eclectic talents, drawing so well, and writing equally well, that I really envy him. The House of Owls is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

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