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In October 2020, I set up a trail camera on a tray feeder hoping to document a flying squirrel, but instead recorded a great horned owl using the feeder as a perch. chase. Without the camera, I wouldn’t have suspected he had visited.
The more natural habitat there is in your neighborhood, the more likely owls will be to visit. Tall old trees provide safe resting and sometimes nesting places, and native trees, shrubs and other plants produce seeds and favor insects that feed the small animals that owls feed on. Most barnyard owls go undetected, but spotted owls can be easy to notice in nest boxes – they spend part of most of their days just looking around. (Plans from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are here.)
Spotted owls are rare where I live in Duluth, Minnesota, but hundreds if not thousands of birders gravitate here in the winter to enjoy more northern species near the western tip of the largest lake in the world. Twelve species of owls have been recorded in my town and surrounding county. In the 40 years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen them all, seven in my own backyard.
To detect so many, it was necessary to focus on their hoots and other cries at night and on chickadees, jays and crows during the day. Silent crows gathering ominously on Alfred Hitchcock’s playground equipment The birds may sound like “a crows murder,” but the phrase seems more apt when the crows are shouting bloody murder at a great owl. Screaming jays and crows reported nearly every long-eared owl, great horned owl, barred owl, and great gray owl I saw in my neighborhood, and the “swearing” chickadees led me to a lot of boreal owls and boreal owls.
My “birding brain” helps me notice songs and calls even when I’m not bird watching. My hearing has deteriorated with age, but I still hear the soft hoot of great horned owls and the higher-pitched whistle of sawsaws indoors, even when my windows are closed. On the night of September 8, 2004, I heard a screech owl neigh and went to see it, the only one I found this far north. Boreal owls are much more likely to be here and have a louder, more piercing call, but they generally limit their vocalization to the forests where they nest, not residential neighborhoods. The only time I heard a boreal owl in my backyard was around 1am on November 3, 2016, a date I will never forget. My dear Chicago Cubs had just won the World Series two hours ago. I was too excited to sleep, but when I finally took my dog out before bed, the owl was screaming and I even saw its silhouette in the dark. Apparently I wasn’t the only one celebrating that night.
I’m sure I’ve missed a lot more owls than I’ve seen in my yard, but knowing one could being there keeps me alert. After all, the only thing better than an owl showing up in the garden is seeing it.