Tyto Alba — Another Non-Coyote Wildlife Adventure

Tyto Alba or Barn Owl (click on the individual photos to enlarge them)

Tyto Alba or Barn Owl (click on the individual photos to enlarge them)

It was dusk, and all was peacefully quieting down in the park until, “Clonk, clonk!” It sounded as though a clumsy big horse was having trouble getting back into its stall, knocking things over along the way. . . .  except that there are no horses or horse stables in San Francisco and haven’t been for decades, by law. This un-“natural” sound probably sounded all the more disparate because I was out in nature. Instead it was a young Barn Owl (Tyto Alba) waking up after a long days nap — banging against the sides of its own “barn” — a man-made owl box.

A few minutes later I heard loud wing battings. How could this be? Aren’t owls supposed to be silent flyers so as not to be heard by their prey? And then I heard what sounded like the complaints/warning cries of alarm of a bird such as a Stellar Jay — maybe a little different — and I figured some bird was warning-off these predator owls from encroachment. Wrong again. THAT was the sound of the Barn Owl itself! Barn owls don’t who, who, whoot, they screech in a bunch of different ways!

AUDIO: Notice there are a couple of distant coyote barks at the 34-39 second marker, and the owls get really intense at the 2:54 marker. The recording lasts 3:24 minutes.

As I sat there listening to their amazing shrieks, screeches, peeps, hissing and squawks, I saw one, and then THREE others — a total of four — fly off to a nearby tree — wow, there were that many here?! This was indeed a surprising night.

For years I’d seen one at a time at dawn and dusk, gliding and swooping in its silveriness, ever so silently through the dark. You could only see them as you do the bats — against the lighter night sky before total darkness set in. Once, I lay down on the ground and was able to capture, in a photo, an owl as it “mothed” right above me, from what seemed like five feet away, examining me out of curiosity — no, it was not courting me! It was only because that owl was against the lighter sky that the camera was able to capture its image — it was actually dark outside.

Why hadn’t I seen them here before? There were actually several signs that the owls were there, including the box itself. The old owl box has been empty for many years, or inhabited by squirrels, so there had been no reason for me to suspect that the box was rightfully occupied now, but there were other signs staring me in the face. Owl guano droppings had hardened along the length of a nearby tree trunk, and below another tree there were owl pellets and what looked like white splashes of paint — more guano, or owl poop which had been expelled away from the tree trunk and lay in individual blotches.

There was even a dead mouse which had been rejected. I pulled out my camera and took a few shots in the obscure nighttime lighting. I got home and processed the photos — nice photos except they were rather grainy due to the lack of light at 9:00pm. I decided that I would come back tomorrow and take photos with the aid of a flashlight, the way I had the raccoons years ago in Golden Gate Park.

2016-07-16 (11)The next evening, a little bit earlier than before — I didn’t want to miss anything — I arrived and plopped myself some distance away and waited. Soon a little face appeared in the hole of the box and I got a couple of shots. Then the face disappeared. The scenario repeated itself, only this time there was squawking from around me as the little feathery fella revealed himself. It was the adult owls — I thought they were chattering away. Several of the owls appeared on the branches in neighboring trees to gawk at me — like I suppose I was gawking at them.

I then focused the camera over on the owls in the branches and took some more pictures. The little fella in the box re-appeared in the opening. Suddenly the urgency in their shrieks intensified. And it is then that the tone of those intense squawks gained meaning: they were warning the little fella in the box: “keep down, keep down, danger, danger!!” All critters protect their nests and youngsters. Now a couple of the owls appeared on a nearby board/platform and right on the box itself, as those around continued their warning cries. They were distressed. And the youngster, too, looked worried, and cringed, and looked in the direction of the adults knowing that all the commotion signified danger.

Now I knew that the loud batting wings I had heard the day before also had been warning messages. I did not feel good about the distress.  I had the choice of returning the next day or lingering a moment longer to get a few more photos now. I decided on the latter course of action — it would be less disruptive than returning again. I grabbed a couple more shots and then left. I went home and processed the photos, looked up some tidbits of information which I’ve added below, and wrote up the encounter. I was totally distraught and upset that my presence had upset the owls which were in their nesting phase, and I vowed to never go back, and neither would I be the catalyst for others to disrupt these birds.

By extension, this situation is true for all wild animals anywhere, including coyotes in our parks: they just want to be left alone and not be noticed, but if they are intruded upon or threatened — even if it is just in their own perceptions — they will come forth with display messages and screeches — and more — if they feel a need to defend themselves, their territories, and especially their young.

I would write it up, but I would not reveal the nest location: the owls would not have wanted that. They are nocturnal, so if you want to see them you should begin your walk in the dark — and keep your eyes on the sky above the tree-line: you may see one floating silently by before returning to its roost at dawn, or as it begins its “day” hunting at dusk. Or, you could see them as a shimmer against the darker trees during those twilight hours. This experience of mine was so totally different from that with the famous Great Horned Owls in the Eucalyptus trees which many folks have observed, where the adult owls took the gawking of their owlets in stride.

Fortunately, this little green box is in a remote part of the park, actually in someone’s yard. One of the neighbors recently told me that “those birds” were keeping him up throughout the night. It is because he told me this that I stopped to investigate that “clonk” sound. Below, I’ve written up some tidbits of information I collected over the internet.

Territoriality. Barn Owls defend the area around their nests, but they don’t defend the area where they hunt from others of their same species — they share. In other words, more than one pair of Barn Owls may hunt on the same fields.

Contrast this with the Great Horned Owls who live in the same parks as the Barn Owls but who are very territorial: only one mated pair and their offspring live in the area. Their territoriality actually places a limit on the number of breeding pairs in any given area. Great Horned Owls who haven’t been able to establish territories are known as “floaters” — they live along boundaries of established territories.  In fact, it may be that just the male Great Horned Owls defend the territories. They are known to kill each other in territorial conflicts, and sometimes resort to cannibalism.

In the summer, the Barn Owls’ home hunting ranges are a little over a square mile; in the winter they can be many times larger. If food is extremely scarce, both of these owl species might move out of their established territories, but there is no annual migration and they maintain their territories for life.

Nesting. I found out that most Barn Owls mate for life — they are monogamous, as are Great Horned Owls — though there have been reports that some males have had several female mates at the same time. And Barn Owls tend to use the same nest site year after year. One of their courting displays is hovering in front of the female in a “moth-like fashion” — Oh, I’ve experienced this several years ago! Chicks usually start flying at 9-10 weeks and begin leaving the nest for good at about 11-12 weeks. All will probably be gone by 14 wks.

If there is nesting in July, as was the case with this find of mine, it’s usually a second clutch for the mated pair. About 10% of barn owls reproduce two times a year — and some even produce three clutches in a year! And, although the breeding season is considered from March to August — having expanded due to climate change from an original breeding season which was almost always in May — they, in fact, can produce youngsters at any time of the year.

They lay as many as 6 eggs, but more often than not, only about 4 of them hatch. The eggs are laid asynchronously, every 2-3 days and they hatch in the order in which they were laid (sounds like a business telephone answering service, doesn’t it?!). So chicks from the same clutch can actually vary up to about 21 days in their ages. The little guy in the box must have been the last in his clutch. Incubation is about 31 days. They don’t “build” nests, but find places to lay their eggs which they line with their pellets.

Poop. Pellets are actually excrement regurgitated through the mouth. Owls swallow their prey whole or tear larger prey into pieces to get it down their throats, but they don’t digest the bones and fur. The parts of the prey that actually pass through the digestive tract and out of their rumps are excreted as a softish, whitish “guano” — like that of all birds. Guano can often be found dripping down the tree trunks which they inhabit. However, in owls the larger, indigestible parts of the prey, including bones and fur, are kept in their gizzard for a couple of hours as a pellet which then travels back up into the Proventriculus (the first part of the stomach) where it remains for ten hours before being regurgitated. This stored pellet actually blocks the owl’s digestive system so that new prey cannot be swallowed until the pellet is ejected. Twice a day these are spat-up, or regurgitated out of their mouths, as “pellets”. These pellets basically look like the poop of other animals except that they are oval-shaped and not long. [see Digestion in Owls]

Hunting. All owls’ eyesight is pretty superb — they hunt at night [see “Coyote Night Vision”]. But, the ability of Barn Owls to capture prey by sound is the best of any animal that has ever been tested. Their satellite-dish shaped faces helps with this. They eat mostly small mammals such as rats, mice, voles, gophers. Also bats. They don’t eat squirrels so much because they are less active at night. They also eat some song birds. 91% of barn owls, post-mortem, are found to contain rat poison. The most long-lived Barn Owl ever recorded was 15 years old.

Poisons: Everyone, please don’t use poisons to eradicate rats, and please ask your neighbors to do the same. Rat poison is a horrible and slow death for rats, causing them to bleed from the inside out, and causing them to become disoriented and slow. This is why owls catch them. But worse, the poison actually travels up the food chain to these owls. Several years ago I sent in two dead barn owls for toxicity tests: they were found to have huge amounts of rat poisons laced throughout their bodies. We’ve also had a number of our Great Horned Owls killed by rat poisoning: One, this year, we guessed, was the mother of owlets who then never made it to adulthood.

Coyote As Totem of America, A New Yorker piece by Ottessa Moshfegh

For the week of July 4th, The New Yorker “asked writers to describe a person, object, or experience that they think captures a distinctly American spirit.” I’ve reprinted several paragraphs here, of this New Yorker article, with a link to the original for continued reading. Illustration (by Oliver Munday) and text (by Ottessa Moshfegh)©The New Yorker, July 6, 2016. Enjoy!

2016-07-07“The other day, I watched a wounded coyote jaunt down my street in East Hollywood. It limped suavely along the sidewalk at a confident clip, its mouth open in happy wonder or obscene hilarity—I couldn’t get a good read on him. Or maybe what I thought I saw in his eyes was just a projection of my own state of wonder at this gorgeous creature gliding coolly across my world of concrete and palm trees, elevating my humdrum hunt for a parking spot to a moment of amazement. I followed the coyote for a while in my car, then stopped to watch it step into busy Virgil Avenue, where it dodged cars so calmly, so expertly, that it almost appeared to be controlling the flow of traffic with its mind.

Los Angeles coyotes live in the hills, in parks, in landfills, under highway overpasses. We hear them howl at night. They are indelible players in the theatre of the city, and frequent sightings remind us that this land itself is still a volatile and largely untamable frontier. A strange and dangerous paradise, L.A., and we stubborn fools insist on staying put despite earthquakes, drought, forest fires, the dwindling shoreline. I like living here because the illusory nature of reality is perversely obvious. Around every corner there’s another movie scene; a fictional shimmer rises up off the city through the smog. As a writer, my imagination feels freer here than in my native New England.

There were coyotes back East, of course, but I like the peculiar grittiness and verve of L.A. coyotes. Their daytime presence in the city has increased with the drought. They come out in search of food and water. They don’t seem afraid of humans. Many humans, however, are afraid of them. In the suburbs especially, the fear is apparent: people arm themselves when they walk around at night. If a coyote comes onto your property, they say, shoot it on sight. Don’t leave your doors open.

Coyotes very rarely attack humans, by the way”. . . . [to continue reading please visit: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/coyotes-the-ultimate-american-tricksters?mbid=social_twitter]

Please Help Support This Environmental Documentary Film by Courtney Quirin

Courtney launched her Kickstarter for her new environmental documentary about the Guardians of the Great Bear Rainforest.

The film is about the erosion of science in Canada, told through the eyes of Guardians of the Great Bear Rainforest.

Guardians live on boats in the depths of the wilderness. full time, in order to monitor wildlife. Their lives are epic: the oldest Guardian has been living on his boat for 39 years, and every day he moves his boat to a new location, drops anchor, and then wades through streams (while dodging grizzlies!) to count salmon. But alas, Canada’s last prime minister, Stephen Harper, changed a bunch of environmental legislation, closed science libraries, shuttered science offices, and silenced scientists, so now there’s not much monitoring of the environment going on. AND, all of this is happening at a time when liquefied natural gas terminals are planned for the coast.

Courtney lived on boats in the wilderness for 2 months to shoot this film!

Please help spread the word and share the link with anyone who you think would be interested.



My Hummingbird Adventure, by Laurel Rose

Occasionally I like to include stories about other animals besides coyotes. Here is one of those stories, with photos, by Laurel Rose. Click on any of the photos to enlarge them.

I learned a valuable lesson this weekend: Do Not Prune or Remove Trees in Spring!
Over the past couple years, I’ve been removing a row of unattractive honeysuckle trees along the fence line to let more light into our shady yard and plant some ferns & other foliage.  The trees all had long skinny bare trunks with foliage starting at about 15- 20feet up so all I could see was fallen leaves on top of compacted dirt and 8 pencil thin tree trunks.  This weekend 7 and 8 were scheduled for removal. After getting 7 out of the ground, root and all, my friend and & I were getting ready to start breaking the trunk & branches down to 4 foot size segments  required by the city for the green waste bins.  I had a hand saw and my friend was using my mini electric chain saw for the job.  I kept a safe distance in a far corner of the yard and we got to work. 2 branches into it, the chainsaw turns off and I hear “Oh Noooo! Oh my god! Nooo!” then, “chirp, chirp chirp”!

The tree had a hummingbird nest camouflaged and expertly woven very securely onto a few twig size branches. Both my friend and I love & respect nature so we were a little frantic and horrified at the thought of nearly chainsawing through this little womb-like nest cradling 2 chicks. I found a little box and cushioned it with soft material scraps and toilet paper and placed the nest inside very carefully. It took a good hour for us to calm down and stop focusing on how thoughtless we had been to choose April to remove a tree.  Even ugly trees with sparse foliage provide habitat and serve a s food source.  My friend, a somewhat burly guy named Terry but whose friends call him “Bubba” was on the verge of tears telling me, “I searched for a nest before sawing off each branch. . .” . Even if one of us has noticed it, it did not resemble a typical storybook nest.

This is how I found the nest

This is how I found the nest

I called every organization and person I could think of for help on that Saturday evening: Golden Gate Audubon Society, Wild Care, and Janet. I was able to listen to a recorded instructions for caring for a injured chick.  I kept them inside for the night in a warm dark spot away from my curious little dog who likes to be a part of everything I do whenever possible. As soon as it was light outside, I placed the box up high in the area where the tree had been.  Within 20 minutes, mom showed up and fed her hungry babies and I watched as she gathered nectar from the flowers overhead on tree number 8 (which will stay in my yard).
DAY 1: a few hours after discovery

DAY 1: a few hours after discovery

We estimated the age to be between 2 & 3 weeks and were told that hummingbird chicks leave the nest at 23 days old. A couple days before this happens, a stronger chick pushes the weaker out of the nest and it dies because mom will not feed it on the ground. The reason this happens is because the nest is very small and is needed as a “launching pad”. Once the other chick takes flight, mom will continue to feed her baby for several days, teaching how and where to find all the best nectar & bugs before she chases it away to find its own territory.  Since they are in a box, neither one will be pushed out of the nest and mom will continue to feed them both. I’m not sure if this may have any negative or unforeseen consequences but I like that idea!


Day 5: Just before I left late Thursday morning, I went to check on the chicks and snapped this photo. They looked like they were ready to spread their wings. I might have made them a little nervous putting the camera up so close but wondered if they were contemplating their first flight. When I came home in the early evening, the first thing I did was check the box and it was empty. I stood there for several minutes wondering how such a tiny creature with only 23 days of life can survive on their own. That’s when I heard chirping above and looked up- there was mama with 1 chick shoulder to shoulder on a branch.

I looked around for the other chick and had noticed what I thought was a leaf caught in one of the links on the fence, but a closer look told me otherwise.

Maybe the little guy didn’t feel quite ready, or maybe he wanted to say goodbye. He let me get real close and  looked at me with that one little eye as I said some encouraging words and slowly reached in my back pocket for my camera.  I snapped one photo and he flew to the branch up above where his family was.
Today would be Day 8. I’ve been seeing what I believe to be this same little chick hanging out in the honeysuckle tree where the box was.  A few hours ago, I observed the mama arrive and feed the chick patiently waiting on a little branch.
If you would like to invite hummingbirds to your yard I would not recommend those feeders with sugar water because they must be cleaned every 3- 4 days or they can make the hummingbirds very sick.  It’s much better and healthier to provide their natural food sources and plant things like honeysuckle, sage, fuchsia, Aloe vera and other long tubular flowers that provide both nectar as well as habitat for insects that serve as protein. Hummingbirds also need a place to perch during the day & sleep at night that offers some protection from wind & rain- usually trees. You can also hang a perch up high in a tree near the flowers and  you can encourage nesting by providing materials by hanging a “Hummer Helper” you can purchase and fill with store bought material or even dog and cat hair — the  “Hummer Helper” is actually just a “suet feeder” which you can buy for a lot less. The best time to start is May.  The Hummingbird Society has a lot more tips and information on their website.
*One last note about trimming trees- the safest time is in the Fall during the months of September- December

“Beyond Words: What animals think and feel”

I am in total agreement with the author of this review: “Carl Safina has written an excellent book that we recommend to our readers without reservation. We guarantee that it will warm your heart to read about animal communities that share both the positive and the negative aspects of human societies. We hope it will make you reflect, as it did us, about the ways in which the activities of humans intrude on the lives of animals. Thank you, Mr. Safina, for giving us this opportunity to learn more about our animal friends.”

Death of a Million Trees

Beyond WordsBeyond Words, by Carl Safina, was written by an animal lover for other animal lovers.  His mission is to convince his readers that animals are capable of the full range of emotions experienced by humans and that their communities are often as complex and varied as human communities.  His hope is that humans who understand the feelings and capabilities of animals, will therefore treat them with the respect they deserve.  It is a worthy cause and not hard to sell to this animal lover.

Inadequate scientific inquiry

Safina begins by lamenting the sorry state of scientific inquiry into animal behavior.  He speculates that the dominance of humans in the environment fostered a condescending attitude toward animals that prevented scientific inquiry of the animal kingdom until very recently.  Animals were perceived by humans as utilitarian objects to be exploited for food and transport or destroyed if perceived as a…

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Happy New Year, 2016!!




Mange Arrested: Amazing Results At AWARE

The first photo of this coyote, taken when he arrived at AWARE in November, is difficult to look at, but just look how good this pup looks today! Treated for a life-threatening case of mange, he is now preparing for a spring release. It’s nice to know that there are people out there who will trap a coyote to get help for it rather than to harm it!

Please think about donating to the Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort: http://www.awarewildlife.org/

[reposted with permission from Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort]

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