Regulars and Shorts

Animals Animals: A Lament for Roosevelt Ave Owls

By Sunny Branson

Microhabitat lost to urban pressures.
by Sunny Branson
Across my street not long ago there was an old maple tree and in it the most perfect knothole- a cavity just the right size for the screech owl family living within. An adult figure filled the hole opening during the day; the bird so perfectly camouflaged that passersby didn't spot it. Friends to whom it was pointed out struggled to find the bark-colored feathers hidden among the length of the tree trunk.

We were saddened to return from a weekend trip this month to find the tree gone, along with the screech owls' habitat. Instead there is a three-foot wide squat stump serving as a constant reminder of the owls that once were.

Five years ago, we discovered the first owl. He sat stately on a plum tree branch in the fresh dew of morning before retiring to his elevated nest. That owl found a mate in our Sugar House neighborhood, and soon young owlets were hatched.

One night that summer, my husband and I were  awakened around 2 a.m. to discover a half dozen frolicking owls in our backyard. Many a night the adult owls used our yard as a playground and school for their fledglings. Fences at either end of the yard served as barriers for flight practice. Next were dive bomb lessons from the lofty branches of our box elder tree. Practice feeding sessions followed with the owlets scratching for something savory in the garden soil. We peered through the windows in the dark and cold in utter fascination of our nocturnal neighbors. Four years in a row an owl returned-possibly the same owl, or perhaps one from the next generation-three years a family resulted.

All owls are protected by federal and state laws and with them their habitats. But it seems more effort goes to protect power lines than the wild birds. Continuing urban growth and property aesthetics puts the owl in peril. One may argue that the birds went missing this year, but I'm quite certain they would have come back. There are few ideal nesting sites in the city, so each one is particularly precious.

These birds were the inspiration for the feature story titled "Owls in Salt Lake City" from the June 2005 issue of CATALYST. Before I understood what was going on in our back yard, I assumed it was a mating ritual-multiple males showing off for a female. The bird experts of Tracy Aviary set me straight, explaining the fledglings training ritual.

After writing that article, I was contacted by a professional photographer (published in National Geographic no less!), who wanted to photograph the birds in our yard. I was very excited to share our experience with other nature and animal lovers. However, we couldn't make it work. The problem was twofold. First I was worried about frightening the birds or impinging on their established playground, which would only encourage them to find another. The photographer assured us he would not disturb the birds and was adamant about not being careless with their home and territory.

The other problem was that the birds were active in the wee hours of the morning and the only good viewing site was from our second floor bedroom window. Somehow, having a stranger planted in our bedroom waiting night after night for the perfect shot just didn't seem feasible. We couldn't think of a way around this predicament, so we had to turn him down.

We enjoyed the owls ourselves for many years. Being curious about what they ate, I would cautiously search under the maple tree for owl pellets. Owls eat their prey whole and the indigestible bits are compressed and coughed up in pellets, which have the texture of torn felt. By dissecting the pellet you can get a good idea of the menu choice for a particular owl. Our Roosevelt Avenue owls preferred small birds, their pellets consisting mostly of feathers and bones.

I can put my pellet dissection tools away, and the binoculars can have a rest, for across my street we no longer have that old maple tree with the perfect knothole. When the screech owls come back, I hope they are able to find a new nesting spot. And I hope their new neighbors stop long enough to look skyward and discover something magical happening above the ground! 

Sunny Branson is co-owner of Single Malt Media, volunteers for Wasatch Animal Rescue and sponsors two pot-bellied pigs at Ching Farm

This article was originally published on October 31, 2007.