Owls (Or Why I Love My Job)

We met in the parking lot around 5:30 p.m. on a June evening. About eight of us piled into the wagon with a small tool box, a ladder, a few cameras and a lot of excitement. We were off to band some eastern screech owls.

In a few minutes we arrived at the first nest just off the trail at the edge of the woods. Several years ago we installed wooden boxes on trees for nesting wood ducks but found out there were other birds using them. The evidence left in the box – droppings, pellets and a half-eaten mouse – suggested owls. This past year, volunteers monitoring the boxes found eastern screech owls in several.

No taller than a pint glass, these small owls are fairly common in Western New York and Pennsylvania. They can be found in forests with little understory but also in suburban neighborhoods and parks. Naturally nesting in tree cavities (holes in trees), screech owls will also nest in manmade wooden nest boxes. Other birds that will use nest boxes include American kestrels, eastern bluebirds, black-capped chickadees, tree swallows, tufted titmice and house wrens.

Not only did volunteers find the adults but those adults were sitting on eggs. By calculating the incubation time and growth of the hatchlings, we estimated that an evening in early June would be a good time to band the owls. By placing a small metal band around a bird’s leg, scientists can learn more about the movements and life history of our feathered friends. (If you have never seen a bird banding station operate, come down to Audubon in the spring when we have banding demonstrations.)

Back to our evening in June – Don, a licensed bird bander, put the ladder up against tree, climbed up and took off his hat. He then curled up his hat brim and stuffed it into the hole at the front on the box.

“How else do you think I’m going to keep the adult from flying out?” he said, with a grin on his face.

With the only exit blocked, he lifted the hinged top lid and reached down into the box. As he pulled his hand back up there were brown feathers peeking through. It was an adult eastern screech owl. All on the ground were smiling with rapt attention. However, Don’s face curled up in slight disgust. Once we saw (and smelled) the front of his T-shirt, we knew why. The adult owl had projected the digested remains of its dinner onto his shirt.

Despite the incredibly strong smelling droppings, Don placed a band with a unique number on the owl’s leg and we placed it back into the box. The hatchlings in that box were still a little small to band so we closed the box and moved on to another. That evening we found a female wood duck sitting on 11 eggs, a screech owl we banded last year sitting on three eggs and a kestrel box with six hatchlings and mom or dad flying overhead.

The last box we checked sheltered two screech owl hatchlings just the right age to band. Bird banders try to band hatchlings when they are almost full grown but don’t have all their feathers so there’s no risk of them leaving the nest and not being able to fly.

Only three owls received bands that day but we all had an amazing experience. And I was left with some distinct feelings. 1) I really like my job. 2) Audubon has many knowledgeable, dedicated volunteers whom without experience like this just wouldn’t be possible. 3) Nature is a delicate balance between the strong and the helpless.

While those experiences are rare and very time specific, you can come down to Audubon and learn more about owls this month. Join us for Owl Day on Saturday, Nov. 9 from 1-5 p.m. Mark Baker, a state-licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator will be there with live owls. Presentations with Mark will be at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

You can also learn more about these nocturnal hunters by dissecting an owl pellet to find out what owls eat, making owl crafts or taking a guided walk on our trails. Practice your owl calls for the calling contest at 3 p.m. Food will also be sold. The cost is $8 per person, $6 for Friends of the Nature Center and includes building admission.

If you want to see what owls might be around Audubon at night, make reservations for the Owl Prowl that night from 6-8 p.m. We’ll explore Audubon’s trails as the sun goes down and call for some common owls. It’ll be a hoot.

Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn until dusk free of charge. Visit the exhibits and live animals in the building Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday 1-4:30 p.m.

Trails and Liberty, our captive bald eagle, are still open dawn to dusk daily.Call 569-2345 or visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information.