‘Owl’ You Need is Love

posted March 18th, 2019 by
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June. Mid-afternoon.

 

Another call had come in. Another message to hear. Another animal in trouble, and someone had taken the time to see what could be done, someone who cared and wanted direction.

 

It was my week to handle phone calls for Wing It, an organization of licensed wildlife rehabilitation volunteers in Tulsa who network to help as best we can. Summer can be hard on humans but is often brutal to native critters. Callers might be tearful, frantic to know what to do, desperate for immediate help; other messages come from the entitled and ignorant, demanding we come clean out their gutters from a sparrow’s nest, or capture a rabbit stealing lettuce from their unfenced garden.

 

This one was neither.

 

“Hello, this isn’t an emergency, it’s just that—well, we have a problem. We need to move a bunch of owls, they’re in our work shed and it’s a mess. Do you relocate? When someone has time, please call us back.”

 

Owls.

 

I returned the call. She explained.

 

“Well, we live just outside Tulsa and have a building out back that’s our work space. We didn’t know a window pane had broken upstairs. Some owls moved in; we’ve seen them at night. They make an awful mess and it stinks…”

 

Yes, it would. A family of owls assuredly leave behind a variety of home-made gifts: the acid in the white “paint” they eject from their vent smells to high heaven. The pellets they barf up come from the muscular gizzard in their stomach; bones and fur they don’t digest get glued together there. The more owls, the more rancid the air.

 

I asked, “How much do you use this shed?”

 

“Well, we’re getting ready to use it a lot soon.”

 

“How soon?”

 

“Late August, maybe September.”

 

“Are these owls in your actual work area?”

 

“No, it’s just smelly everywhere.”

 

“Got it. Hmmm. Tell me about your rodent problem.”
“You mean mice and rats and all?”

 

“Yeah, you’re on acreage, right? I don’t know what you’re manufacturing, but sheds are great homes for tiny critters.”

 

“Oh, we don’t have a problem at all! In fact, we haven’t seen a mouse around here since…”

 

A pause.

 

“Since?” I asked.

 

“Well, it’s been a while.”

 

Owls eat 3-4 ounces of food per day. That’s one rat and two mice, or four mice or—you do the math. One owl = 80 pounds-of-pest eaten annually.

 

“Are they noisy?”

 

“No, they don’t even hoot. Sometimes they sort of scream, but it’s not bad.”

 

“Do they have white faces that are heart-shaped?”

 

“Yes, they do. All six of them.”

 

“Those are barn owls. I think you have Mom, Dad, and four kids, or owlets, living there. And if you see them heading in and out at dusk, which is reeeeeal early for barn owls, it’s because the parents have a lot of work to do; those youngsters are learning to hunt. If they chose your shed, it’s because your property has enough food for six owls to survive.”

 

“But we don’t have a rodent problem—“

 

“Not anymore. They’re your complimentary pest control.”

 

“Oh, my! You mean they ate all the mice?”
“You bet. Tons of people would PAY to have a family of barn owls on their land, or even in their neighborhood. And if you’re lucky enough to see the birds heading in and out, you’re watching “owl school” going on. You have your own Discovery Channel there!”

 

“Well, I never thought about it that way!”
“Here’s more: once the owlets are old enough, they’ll leave your shed to roost. It’s been the perfect home for them to hatch babies, and be safe from predators, but they’ll be out by fall. They don’t migrate unless they’re starving; they’ll probably return to breed next year—unless you repair the window.”

 

“So we can use the shed again?”

 

“Yeah, you’ll just have a bit of a mess to clean up.”

 

“I’ll let my husband know this, and thanks for the information. We’ll figure something out.”

 

“Good! And do remind yourself: you were chosen to host this wonderful family. You’re lucky ducks, even if it doesn’t always smell like it.”

 

I hung up feeling hopeful; rehabbers have little control over the public’s decisions, legal or not. I thought more about how amazing owls are.

 

There are several species of owls to be found in Tulsa. The most common are the barred, the barn, the great horned, and the screech owls. Of all birds, owls have the market cornered as far as myth, legend, and superstition. I can see why.

 

The eye of an owl is a phenomenon. Their eyeballs are too large to move, forcing owls to twist and extend their heads to see more than a narrow band of vision. With twice the vertebrae as humans, their neck bones contain air pockets to cushion arteries—which is helpful when turning one’s head 270 degrees to look backwards, and still maintain blood flow to the brain.

 

Big eyeballs offer more surface area for light entry; owls have more rod cells, which interpret light and dark, than other animals. On top of that, there is a reflective tissue at the back of the eye called the tapetum lucidum; it bounces light back onto the rod cells, which doubles their ability to see in the dark.

 

But owls don’t hunt by sight as much as they do by sound. Facial discs around the eyes bounce sound waves off their faces and direct them to prey. Many owls have asymmetric ear openings; one is higher than the other inside the skull, so sound arrives with the tiniest bit of lag time traveling around the face. This, too, aids in locating dinner.

 

But all science aside, we humans are attracted owls in multiple ways, as they ARE magnificent. The enormity of a great horned blinking in a tree; the call of a barred—Who, who, who cooks for you, who?—or the shock of seeing stiletto knives on extended toes just before a barn owl captures dinner; all of those and more have inspired stories we cherish.

 

So how can we offer owls as much as they offer us? Here are a few ideas:

 

  1. No more poisons, especially for pest control. When a rat or mouse eats it, their decline makes them easier for an owl to catch. The owl eats the rodent; the owl dies, too.
  2. Don’t treat the grass for several feet deep along the back fence; just let it be, or seed it with native plants. Let the area become what it would’ve been had humans not interfered. It’s surprising what cool things will happen; insects, birds, and wildflower blooms can be fascinating.
  3. If you have a dead tree far enough away from your house, leave it. Gouge out areas to hold rain water; leave a few of the better branches that are 12-15’ high. This creates future owl homes.
  4. Certain species of owls will accept an owl box for nesting. The boxes need annual cleaning, and the homeowner should ensure starlings don’t move in first, but if the owls come one year and are successful in family expansion, they’ll probably return. So creating and maintaining a good space for them is important.

 

Which brings me to . . .

 

August. Early evening.

 

I have the Wing It phone again, and am listening to messages. A woman’s voice speaks.

 

“Hi, um, I’d like to leave a message for Kim. She’s one of your volunteers, and I talked to her some weeks back.”

 

I leaned forward, wondering what I’d said.

 

“She told us a lot about the barn owls in our work shed, and how they helped and all. And we talked it over, and started paying more attention, and she was right: it was two parents and four young ones, really pretty.  We started sitting in lawn chairs after sunset to watch all of ‘em coming and going, then we got our kids and grandkids to come over and watch, too.”

 

I nodded, grinning so big my face hurt.

 

“Just seeing them fly was pretty amazing. I guess we kinda got attached, ‘cause we started calling them OUR owls and all, and my husband hasn’t bothered to fix that broken pane they used. We think the family moved a few nights ago, but we can hear them down in the field so I guess it was time. Maybe next year, we’ll hang one of those boxes for them she talked about. But I wanted someone to tell her thank you; she shared a lot of things we didn’t know and now we’re really enjoying having them around. I guess that’s all. Just . . . thank you.”

 

It was a great way to end the day.

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