A Box of Owls

By Pat Yingst, Travis Audubon Master Birder

I guess they don’t know about the coronavirus turning the world upside down–the two red-morph screech owls that have taken residence high up in the old owl box in my front yard. It’s been about 8 years since anyone has lived there. I’m thrilled beyond words. After my first view of an owl sticking halfway out of the box, I had to assume there was a pair of them, but only yesterday was I able, through analyzing pictures, to identify two distinct owls. The second owl has greener eyes, is smaller, and keeps its tufts down so that its head looks rounder. It also looks directly at me, unlike its mate, which is more complex in its looking behavior. I had originally called any owl that appeared in the hole “Redford.” But now I know there’s a “Roberta,” too. Which is which?Who knows–but I’m calling the smaller one Roberta.

They like to appear at the hole at various times in the afternoon for about 20 minutes at a stretch. You would think it would be uncomfortable peering out of that hole with nothing to stand on unless it’s the mate’s head. Sometimes the tips of talons are visible but sometimes I have to assume they are dug into the interior wall of the box. What is the owls’ motive in looking out during the day? Insomnia, cabin fever, fascination with the world. I love the way they look at me with such wide-eyed, brave interest. I stood under the box and had a one-sided conversation with Redford the other day, telling him how pretty he was and wishing him the best with his little family. I felt as if he wanted to answer.

Last Sunday evening I was lucky enough to watch Redford (I assume it was he) appear briefly at the hole and then silently and swiftly fly southward. This was at 8:10 pm. I had just stepped out to get a breather in the middle of yet another Netflix movie. I think he was leaving for work. He had a little lunch pail in his talons. I took to going out about this time every evening. Two nights ago he left at 8:20 heading northwest towards the woods at the end of my short street. Then last night it was 8:25 when he again headed northwest. Given the lengthening of days, I’d say he’s pretty darn punctual.

I haven’t seen the back-and-forth bringing of food to the mate sitting on eggs (which is what I imagine is happening now). Maybe that’s because I’m not patient enough to stay up past my bedtime. I know from past owl box residents that it gets really exciting after the eggs hatch. Soon I expect to see a little red owl with a brillo-pad-textured head looking out of the hole. All the previous screech owl residents were gray so maybe it will look more like a head made from a copper scouring pad. Then, if everything goes smoothly I will see the parents on the branches outside the box, watching their little ones, after winding themselves up for courage, drop down, down, down and then recover just before hitting the ground to fly shakily towards some safe bushes to hide in. I’m keeping my fingers crossed hoping all will go well for these beautiful creatures.