Listening for ping-pong balls bouncing in the night

This is an article I wrote for our local cultural website Fruita Pulp.  If you are interested in the goings on in my neck of the woods, check it out.

WESO - Brett Walker - 2011 - reducedWestern Screech-owl in nestbox along Big Salt Wash in Fruita, CO.  Photo by Brett Walker

It is 5:55 am and still very dark on the cold, snowy morning of December 16th. I pull over near the corner of Aspen and Orchard in Fruita and wake up my laptop. Holding up my little speaker, I play track 3 and listen for a response.  I must look a bit like a 2012 version of John Cusack’s character in the movie Say Anything, only much less fresh-faced.  Finally my response comes, a soft hoot that starts out loud and slow and then gets softer and faster.  Kind of like a ping-pong ball bouncing high on a table, gradually making shorter, faster bounces as it comes to rest.  I am not trying to woo a lovely high school girl living on Aspen St., rather I am trying to get an answer from a Western Screech-owl, a small unobtrusive bird, about 9 inches high, that blends in well with the bark of the trees where it perches.  These owls keep a low profile so you may not know it, but there is probably is one living in your neighborhood.  If so, you are in luck.  Unlike teenagers with boom boxes, they make great neighbors.

Birders, on the other hand, are an odd bunch.  They get up at ungodly hours of the morning, do goofy bird imitations, and walk around with clunky binoculars swinging from their necks.  Sure they sometimes travel to exotic locales like Costa Rica to see toucans and parrots, but you are just as likely to find them at the local dump or sewage treatment ponds trying to spot an unusual species of migrating gull.  Like any special interest group they include a broad range of “types”.  There are those (in my opinion somewhat obnoxious) birders who treat the past time like a competition sport only.  They flit all over the globe, trying to rack up as many species on their “life list” as possible.  Once a species is seen and added to the list they lose interest immediately, quickly moving on to the next.  They are not much concerned with learning anything about the birds that they seek, only that they have seen more of them than the next guy.  But those birders are rare, there are far more who rejoice just as much when a special, but much less exotic species appears at their bird feeder and lingers awhile, allowing them to admire it and observe its quirky behaviors.  The best birders, in my opinion, are those who not only take time to observe their favorite birds, but also make an effort to learn more about them and turn that knowledge into actions that help preserve the birds.

Here in the Grand Valley, the birders may be relatively few, but we have been blessed with some of the good ones.  About 20 years ago, some of these good birders took an interest in the Western Screech-owl.  This small owl occurs in a variety of habitats, including woods, shrubland, and suburbs where it eats small mammals (like mice), large insects and the occasional small bird.  There should be lots of them in the Grand Valley, but Rich Levad, Coen Dexter, and Tom Moran noticed that only a very few were counted in the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count.  This isn’t too surprising since, like most owls, Western Screech-owls are not very active in daylight hours.  Also, even when they are active, their calls are not very loud so they often get missed by bird surveys.  But Levad and his colleagues devised a way to find them by essentially “calling them out.”  First they would find a spot that looked good for owls- someplace with larger trees with holes suitable for roosting and nesting.  Next they would play a recording of a screech-owl’s “bouncing ball” hoots (you can hear some recordings here.) These owls are territorial, so when they hear the recording they think it is an intruder and come over to check him or her out, or at the very least call him names (hoot back.)

Using this technique, the Grand Valley Audubon Society was soon counting lots of owls in the annual Christmas Bird Count.  In fact, they regularly count more Western Screech-owls than any other location in the nation.  (The Audubon Society has been organizing Christmas Bird Counts all over the U.S. and Canada for the last one hundred years.  You can learn more about them on the Audubon Society’s website.)  But as Levad and his friends learned more about the owls, they quickly realized that the tree holes that the owls need for roosting and nesting were becoming harder to find as older trees were trimmed and removed.  These good birders and other Audubon volunteers organized a project to build and install owl nesting boxes throughout the Valley.  But they didn’t stop at just improving habitat for the owls, they also set out to learn more about them and instituted a nesting box monitoring program to track their success.  This project spawned a collaboration with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory to mark and collect data on nestling owls before they fledge.  Their efforts have paid off.  This year’s Christmas Count yielded a local record 63 Western Screech-owls.

barn owl

Now Grand Valley Audubon President Nic Korte has set his sights on another species- the Barn Owl.  This strikingly beautiful owl occurs throughout the world, hunting small mammals in open habitats like grasslands, agricultural fields, and marshes.  Like the Screech-owl, it nests in cavities, only larger ones in trees, steep banks and old buildings.  But Barn Owl numbers seem to be declining across North America, possibly due to loss of habitat as old agricultural fields are converted to suburbs and older trees and buildings are torn down.  Korte and Grand Valley Audubon have started a new project to assess the Barn Owl population in our area, and determine if numbers can be increased by providing nest boxes.  If you are interested in putting up a Barn Owl nestbox on your property or want to support the project you can contact Nic Korte at nkorte1@hotmail.com.  (Korte is especially interested in abandoned silos, so if you know of one, please let him know.)  Barn Owls make great neighbors- a nesting pair can consume over 1,000 rodents a year and rarely, if ever, eat a pet or chicken.  But while they may take care of your mouse problem they can invite a “pest” problem of their own.  Don’t be surprised if, some early morning around Christmas, you notice some odd looking people with speakers and binoculars taking a peculiar interest in your trees.

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Listening for ping-pong balls bouncing in the night