May 23, 2013
Written by Jack Sanders
Thursday, 01 December 2011 14:43
The other day, Thanksgiving visitors were remarking on the beauty of a Blue Jay, which was visiting a feeder in the back yard and glowing in the wonderful sun we had daily for the long holiday weekend.
“Yeah, but they’re bad guys,” said one guest. “They eat baby birds.”
Blue Jays and their close relatives, the crows, often have reputations tainted by the fact that they are opportunistic omnivores that may, on occasion, take a hatchling as a meal.
Does that make them “bad”?
If so, the Eastern Screech Owl that Alex Brannan photographed last week must be a super bad guy. All it does is kill living things — including birds, young and old. But few people would label an owl a bad bird because it is a predatory carnivore. And few should feel that way about Blue Jays, which are largely nut eaters and, in fact, may do more to help plant trees than even squirrels.Many birds eat other birds. The fact that the consumed birds are babies should not be viewed as something that makes the eater evil. Full- and part-time predators, like owls or jays, are helping control populations that could otherwise get out of hand and create problems. We have all seen what has happened when the natural predators of the White-tailed Deer were eliminated at the same time humans created ideal habitats for them in our semi-wooded suburbia.
The Eastern Screech Owl may be the most common owl in our area. In size, it is second smallest behind the Northern Saw-whet Owl.
Those ear tufts that Alex so nicely caught in his picture aren’t actually ears and are not related to its hearing apparatus. They instead function as part of the display the owl shows off to prospective mates and as a way of helping it blend in with its arboreal surroundings. When it’s still light out, the ear tufts are up, but when it’s dark and time to hunt, tufts are lowered and the screech owl’s head is rounded.
Screech owls are deft hunters, able to take prey that’s walking on the land, floating in the water and flying through the air. Yes, like Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks, these owls can capture birds in mid-air, although they also take them from perches. Their main food, however, includes a wide variety of insects and rodents — making them very important in the realm of pest-control.
Most people don’t get to see these birds because they blend in well with their environment and, of course, because they are most active at night. However, many people have heard them and wondered, “What the heck is THAT horrible sound.” One guide describes it as a “series of melancholy tremulous whistles descending in pitch.” Another says, “strongly descending whinny with husky falsetto quality reminiscent of whinnying horse.” One birder we met simply likened it to “the cry of a banshee.” I’ve never met a banshee but I have heard a lot of screech owls. Based on the bird, I don’t think I’d want to meet a banshee.
Oh, and by the way, up to 70% of screech owl young never reach adulthood, primarily because of predation. Among the predators? Blue Jays.
Family Bird Watching Class & “Christmas Bird Count” Practice, Saturday, Dec. 17, 1 to 2:30, $5, Audubon Greenwich, 613 Riversville Road; RSVP 203-869-5272 x230, greenwich.audubon.org.
Copyright 2011 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] gmail.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s website is www. sandersbooks. com.
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