Growing up barred – Part 1: becoming independent

From the ages of about 8-19 years, I lived in a house that had a nice backyard and was not too far from some neighborhood woods with a creek. As a child, I read under backyard trees, planted a flower garden and played in the woods with friends. While I became familiar with squirrels, robins, frogs and some bugs and loved being outdoors, I didn’t spend lots of time looking for wildlife. And I never saw an owl in the wild.

Now decades later, I’ve had the good fortune to learn a good deal about various members of the wildlife community while spending time finding and watching them. And in the past couple years, I’ve been privileged to see owls up close in the wild; for example, the owl below was perched next to a pathway at dusk when I walked by a few days ago.

This past summer was unique for me, however, because I was able to observe a pair of juvenile barred owls (Strix varia) at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve as they set off on their life’s journey outside the nest. I’d like to share a bit of what I saw with you in a three-part blog. This one is about them finding their independence. The next two will focus on their grooming and interactions.

Barred owl pairs usually bond for life; if one mate dies, the survivor will seek another partner soon after. They tend 2-4 eggs, which hatch after 4 weeks’ brooding and the young leave the nest after four or five weeks. They remain dependent on their parents for food for some time after that even though they may be almost as large as the adults at 16-25 inches in length (40–63 cm); their wing span can stretch up to 3-4 feet (38-49 in, 96–125 cm).

When I first spotted the young owls in June, they could already fly. Nevertheless, they did need to find their balance occasionally as they perched and moved along branches and snags.

 

The owlets were making a keening noise the first time I saw them. At first, I didn’t recognize it, and I thought perhaps some small mammal was in distress.

Eventually, the plaintive call helped me locate them above me in a tree. This particular call apparently is used by the babies to call to their parents. I figured mom or dad was close by as the owlets kept looking upwards and eventually the parents did fly in with a meal – crayfish as far as I could tell.

 

On several occasions over the next 6 weeks or so, I would hear the owlets making that keening call and staring upwards. I figured the parents were nearby, but they were obviously just keeping an eye on their offspring and not feeding them (at least not when I was there).

It was time for the young ones to learn how to get their own meals.  Although barred owls usually hunt at dawn and dusk, the young owls were busy looking for food during the day. The mammals they eat include voles, mice, shrews, squirrels, rats, rabbits, bats, moles, opossums, mink, and weasels. Birds are also a food source and their prey may include woodpeckers, grouse, quails, jays, icterids, doves, pigeons, cardinals, cedar waxwings and grackles. They also eat amphibians, reptiles and insects (e.g., snakes, slugs, lizards, frogs and toads, salamanders, crayfish, turtles, scorpions, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers) and it was the latter group of prey animals that I saw the owlets hunting. Here for example, it appears one young owl had caught a crayfish.

One day, one of the pair was grasping a twig in its beak; I’m not sure what it was doing but it seemed to have some purpose. Perhaps it was testing how strong its beak was.

  

That a strong beak can be an asset became apparent on another occasion. One of the juvenile owls suddenly flew from one tree on the other side of a water ditch to one above my head. There was much rustling of branches and leaves and when I got into a spot where I could see the bird, it became obvious s/he had caught the largest stag beetle I had ever seen at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. It appears that the giant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus) drinks tree sap, which must have been what it was doing when the owlet got hold of it. The problem for the owl was how to eat the beetle when those large pincers were in the way.

     

The owl would try to grab hold of a pincer but lose its grip; s/he would turn the beetle around but was having a very difficult time getting those defensive appendages off. This went on for quite a long time, which made me feel a bit sorry for the beetle.

 

Finally, the owl had success and was able to settle in for a crunchy meal.

 

They expel the indigestible parts of their prey in owl pellets that they cough up regularly. Here you see the contents of one a friend found under a favorite perching branch at the reserve.

Another day I saw one owlet suddenly fixate on the water ditch.It turned out that quite a large rat snake (Elaphe obsolete; Pantherophis alleghaniensis) was swimming by. The owl watched it carefully as it climbed out of the ditch and eventually crossed the adjacent walking path, never making a move to tackle the reptile. I had remarked on this encounter to the reserve’s land manager, who said it was probably a smart move on the owlet’s part, since the snake was large enough that it could have wrapped around the owl’s head and choked it.

The young owls seemed to have learned a lot about life as a predator as they grew older. It was fascinating watching them explore their world.

Next up: how the owlets cared for themselves.

My hummer summer, part 1 – guarding the home front!

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Just like human beings, some birds like to hang out in groups, while others are more solitary in nature, coming together mainly to reproduce. A prime example of the latter group are the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris).

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7336-maria-de-bruyn-res2This past summer, some health and other problems led to my spending a good deal of time at home. The upside was that being a bit home-bound gave me plenty of opportunities to observe the comings and goings of these gorgeous little flyers and to learn more about their behavior towards one another.

I had at least four ruby-throats – and probably more as I couldn’t distinguish them all – visiting my feeders and yard regularly. A couple had a distinctive trait that helped me identify them, like some white feathers on top of their heads or at the bottom part of their gorgets.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1237-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a9185-maria-de-bruyn-res

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I usually had three or four nectar feeders up in my back yard and two in my front yard. In addition, as the summer progressed, the gardens were filled with increasing numbers of nectar-filled flowers so my home site was a fairly well-stocked larder for them.

The ruby-throats are among the more competitive hummingbirds and don’t really like to share their feeding space with others, although a friend and I visited a birder in a nearby town who had more than a dozen feeders up and many dozens of hummers visiting his back yard every day, feeding right next to one another. At my house, I suppose guarding their food source is an instinctual imperative, since they do consume half their own weight in nectar each day.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0514-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8255-maria-de-bruyn-resThe tiny birds were quite intent on protecting their territory from intruders. Only thing was, several of them considered my feeders THEIR territory, so there was a continual rotation of birds perched in nearby trees and shrubs to watch for “invaders”. Once spotted, the newly arrived hummers would have the current “resident” bird swoop down on them (at up to 60 miles per hour!), frequently chittering like mad as a warning to “get out of here.”

Sometimes, they would have a little “challenge flight ballet” as they confronted one another, until one gave up and flew off – sometimes across the street, sometimes to the yard on the other side of the house, and sometimes to a nearby tree or shrub at the side of the house.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8257-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8256-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a9443-maria-de-bruyn-resThere was one particular male hummer who seemed particularly aggressive – or perhaps possessive is a better term as I never saw him body slam a rival; he just made sure that the other bird would leave. I recognized him as he often chose exactly the same spots on a nearby Rose of Sharon, a willow oak and a cedar as his watching posts,

Some of those who were run off didn’t travel far, however. They would fly to a nearby tree or shrub and wait to see if Hummer No. 1 would leave.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0290-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1099-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a5725-maria-de-bruyn-resScientists have determined that the brain section responsible for memory and learning – the hippocampus – is five times larger in hummingbirds than in woodpeckers, seabirds and songbirds. They memorize where feeders and nectar flowers are and can remember when they last fed there. They can even estimate how long it will take each flower to fill up with nectar again.

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The hummers’ memory is long-term, too – they recall not only where feeders are placed in their breeding territories but also in places along their yearly migration routes! Wouldn’t it be nice if we had such great memories making GPS and maps less of a necessity?

 

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7716-maria-de-bruyn-resAnother behavior I observed several times was a hummer hovering in front of me, especially when the nectar feeders were getting low. Scientists have determined that they can recognize the people who replenish their food sources, which makes for a delightful encounter as one chirps at you while suspended in front of your face with its wings flapping at 60 beats per second!

While guarding their home turf, they may stick out their tongues briefly after feeding.

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However, if you see one with its tongue stuck out permanently, this can be a sign of a fungal infection (often acquired from dirty feeders). Their tongues swell with the infection and they can no longer drink with these anatomical, elastic micro-pumps.

 

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Often death ensues, so it’s important to keep the nectar feeders clean!

 

 

 

Coming up in part 2: the beauty of the hummingbirds at rest and in flight