Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Are owls acting strangely this year?

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I have received several reports about owls seen around feeders and in back yards, recently. Here are a few:

Q. The Berkshire Eagle's local section has shown many owl photos this winter, including daylight ones. Are owls behaving differently this year?

MARIA

Q. We were so surprised to see this owl keeping an eye on our feeders! I thought that owls were nocturnal and to see this owl attempt to grab the bottom of our feeder was really strange. It also attempted to nibble at our suet, but struggled. The regular birds at our feeder did not seem to be as terrified as they are when the hawk is about. Is there something wrong with this owl for it to be with us during the day? Do they prey on small birds as well? Your thoughts would be welcomed.

LIZ, Pittsfield near Kirvin Park

Q. We live in woods but there are few large trees for an owl to nest in. [We] have a barred owl perched in a tree in our backyard near the feeders, just watching. There is a beaver pond nearby and it seems like a good place for them. Would a house help? Would they use a nest box?

— AL, Bennington, VT

Comment: Sunday, March 3, 9:45 a.m. spotted barred owl in my backyard. He came back around 3 p.m. and three black crows were trying to make him leave. They were not successful. He did leave on his own. Also, this Sunday the 10th, I counted six red wing black birds. Now I know spring is definitely on the way.

—MAUREEN, Adams


Comment: We have had an owl around for the last three weeks. Yesterday was the first time we have been able to get a photo. The owl hangs around our feeders, watches my husband go up and get the mail, and just sits for several hours. This morning we saw a black squirrel running up and down our trees. First time ever!

— LOUISE, North Adams

Comment: Just now saw your story in the Sunday Eagle and you are exactly correct. Snapped photos near our backyard feeder a few days ago and then two days ago saw the owl unsuccessfully chase a highly motivated red squirrel around the yard. Off outer West Street.

— TERRY, Pittsfield

Answers to your questions

Tom Ricardi with the Massachusetts Birds of Prey Rehab Center reports in an interview with Western Mass News that the barred owl is in crisis with no easy solutions. "About 90 percent of the birds I rescue are in an emaciated condition. They're starving, not getting any food. They can go about a week or so, but cold weather like this, it's shorter."

These are one of our most vocal owls and can be heard throughout the year, but during breeding season February and March they are even more boisterous with its familiar nine-note call, "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?" These birds will respond often to imitations of the calls, try it sometime. Their vocalizations are not limited to this and are said sometimes to be heard caterwauling, a series of wild, insane hoots and screams, that may well send a shiver down your spine. Some say it sounds like a fright of howling witches. And now I know what witches sound like.

They are fairly common in wooded Western Mass and surroundings. More so by far, than in the 18th century when the Berkshires were cleared pasture land. Barred owls demand trees, mature trees, and in places where they may not be the norm, nesting boxes may attract them. If you are thinking near your house, forget that idea, and locate a wilder, secluded spot. Their boxes can be made out of 12-inch boards or waterproof plywood. The finished size should be 23-inches deep with a bottom 13-by-11-1/2-inch and a roof 17-by-16-inch with an entrance hole of 7 inches. Directions to build may be found at https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/birds/barred-owl/.

Besides a hollow in a large tree or an old crow nest, or even a squirrel nest that will often be used for several years, a box may be a worthwhile idea.

Barred owls eat many kinds of small animals, including squirrels, chipmunks, mice, voles, rabbits, birds, including smaller owls, amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates. They eat fish too!

They hunt by sitting and waiting on a perch while scanning all around for prey. As far as being out and active during the day, hunger is cause enough to change its habits, and if an owl finds a feeder, it may just stay there day and night. During the daytime, the predator may catch a squirrel, or less often a small bird. And as dusk settles in, the small rodents, like mice come out to feast on the fallen seed.

Stay tuned

Next week we will post the final results of our black squirrel reader survey.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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