BY BOOTS TOLSDORF - It was magical.
We were having dinner with good friends in Nantucket in 2000 on their deck watching as their resident barn owls were silhouetted against the darkening sky, lazily hovering, silently looking for food for their young. Our friend Ted whispered, “You know, Boots, you should have one of these out where you live. Dionis has the perfect vegetation and you cozy right up to open land owned by conservation. No houses. No distracting lights and I can build you one.”
And so he did. In 2001 we had a brand new “barn owl” home, complete with a living and “birthing” room and deck, went up in the northwest corner of the edge of the yard, looking for all the world as if the Historic District Commission had ok’d it. No, it was not shingled and had no white trim, but it was greyed down and had a “door” that faced the prevailing wind from the southwest for summer breezes and protected from the wintery north winds. View More images >>
Now all we had to do was wait.
Not long. In 2002 we had our first inhabitants.
We have a wonderful science organization on the island called the Maria Mitchell Association, named after an island woman. In 1847 she, with the use of a telescope, discovered a comet and was the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer.
This organization provides programs and camps for children for exploration of the seas, the sky and nature. They also monitor the barn owls and the osprey on the island.
Bob Kennedy is our “bird man.” He and two interns from the association come every year in early June to check the owl boxes on various private properties, to see if there are any inhabitants and to check for the possibility of some eggs and/or chicks. They then return to the boxes again in late June to “band” the clutch and record pertinent information such as date, location, number of young and wing length.Bob arrives again in the late fall to see if there will be a second brood. Since barn owls do not live very long, (five years is OLD for a barn owl) they often have two litters.
The Tolsdorf box has been rather successful. We hold the record for the most babies in a box at one time, seven, and we have also had more baby owls in our box over the 12-year period than our neighbors. There was a bad period between 2003 and 2005 when the island was down to only one known barn owl. We had rather severe winters those years, resulting in much snow and cold temperatures. That’s not usual for an island warmed by the Gulf Stream. Many of the owls either died from starvation or flew off the island to other parts on the mainland. The northern limit is Nantucket and Cape Cod for these types of owls. So we are lucky to have them at all.
This year we are happy to have four babies in our box, looking very healthy. When they were banded in late June, “Momma” was in the box, “Dad” was out in the low, thick brush in the shade, sleeping and preparing for a night of foraging.
When you climb up the ladder to peer into the box, you can understand why he might like to get out of there. The “bed” is about 8 inches deep and full of ... well ... the undigested parts of voles, moles, small rabbits and feces. It smells, uh, not nice. And the little white fluffball owlets are not exactly clean.
Very carefully, Momma was removed first. She was beautiful with the softest feathers you can imagine. I held her with a gloved hand by her legs and she perched nobly, quietly sleeping, while the babies were removed one by one and banded. The babies are born from one to three days apart, so it is easy to tell the first born from the last one because they are graduated steps in size.
Momma’s band proved some interesting facts. She was five, so she was “old” (most live three years, breeding in the first year) and she came first from Rhode Island and settled until this past year at Abrams Point on the Harbor. I really think the ‘hood at Abrams is far more upper class than where I live, so I don’t know why she would downgrade.
This house is number two. We upgraded after the brood of seven –– made a larger box and a bigger wraparound deck. Just saying.
As Momma slept peacefully, each owlet was brought down from the box and laid on a blanket, covered from the hot midday sun and shaded by our body shade while the interns did their work. For four babies, this took about 20 to 25 minutes.
Once recorded, with the requisite pictures and movies taken, every owlet and Momma were placed safely back in the box.
We are now in mid-July. The first flight is somewhere between seven to nine weeks, meaning that the little guys could be fledged and trying their wings in the next two weeks. Now Dick and I watch as both parents leave the house every night at dusk and spend the rest of the night hunting and delivering food to a very hungry family. Males hunt alone for the first two weeks, and then females join and hunt as well. It is estimated that for a family of four to feed, they need to find 12 to 16 mice per night. This is not as difficult as it might sound, as barn owls are very efficient hunters. They have very keen hearing and can find these tasty morsels, which are swallowed whole in short order.
It is a joy to sit on our lawn and watch with binoculars the comings and goings of the parents bringing mice and feeding their young. The oldest of the young has now ventured out onto the deck so you can see the “delivery.” And you can’t escape the racket made by the young as they call for their food in hungry anticipation.
Yes, it is magical.
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