By Frank C. Pellett
THE NEIGHBORLY SCREECH OWLS
page 61THEY LIVED IN A HOLLOW TREE NEXT DOOR AND SHOWED THAT THEY AT
LEAST HAD NOTHING TO CONCEAL
Mr. Screech Owl was calling to his mate--”Wher-r-r-r-e are you-u-u?” The Naturalist was lying in the grass enjoying the moonlight and listening to the night sounds. The insistent “Katydid, Katydid, Katydid” and the low chirping of the crickets were soothing to tired nerves after a day spent in wrestling with abstract problems in the study. When Mr. Screech Owl called, “Wher-r-r-r-e are you-u-u-u?” to his mate it was not Mrs. Screech Owl who answered, but the Naturalist. Mr. Screech Owl was not exactly deceived, but he was interested, and flying to a low hanging branch over the Naturalist’s head he stared down with his big round eyes and questioned, “Who-o-o-o are you-u-u-u?”
About this time Mrs. Screech Owl arrived, and, alighting on a nearby tree, called to her mate mournfully. Mr. Screech Owl then began snapping his bill at the Naturalist in an angry manner, as if having decided that, being a creature of the day, he had no business to be abroad after night. After a time the owls went on about their own affairs and left the Naturalist to fall asleep with no cover over his head but the summer stars. As time passed and these evening visits were often repeated, the screech owls became better acquainted with their strange visitor and came to regard him as a harmless fellow. They even permitted him, on occasion, to pry into their family affairs without taking offense.
They lived very near to the Naturalist’s house in the woods. Unlike the Red-tails, they were not inclined to build an elaborate home, but took possession of a hollow tree that had been vacated by a fox squirrel family a few months before. They did not even take the trouble to remove the rubbish left by the previous occupants, but Mrs. Screech Owl laid her five white eggs without any special preparation in the way of a nest. By the time the last egg had been laid the others were so dirty that it was hard to believe they had ever been white.
When the baby screech owls appeared in the nest, they were dainty, downy little things, and Mother Screech Owl was careful to keep them covered. The Naturalist was very curious about the little family and must see them frequently to satisfy his curiosity. When he approached the nest, Father Screech Owl snapped his bill and threatened violence, but Mother Screech Owl never stirred from her place in the nest. She permitted the Naturalist to lift her carefully while he looked at the youngsters, and then put her down again.
On one occasion Father Screech Owl lost his temper and struck the Naturalist on the head with his sharp claws. Such a bold attack by so small a bird amused him, but he was more careful in his movements afterward, so as not to alarm the anxious parents of the downy nestlings.
The family only went abroad after nightfall, and the Naturalist was never able to see the parents in the act of feeding the young. they gave a daily account of their bill of fare, however, in a most peculiar way. Unlike the hawks, the owls swallowed their food with as little ceremony as possible and later threw out the remnants of bones and fur in a compact little ball. By examining the ball he knew exactly what they had for dinner, as well as for lunch.
For a time he felt some anxiety for the song birds nesting in the garden, but as weeks passed and he found remains of nothing but mice and insects, he decided that screech owls were more satisfactory for ridding the place of mice than were cats. The little owls learned after awhile that the barn was a good place to go for mice, and sometimes the Naturalist would find one of them sitting in the barn window when he went to finish the chores after dark.
The babies in the hollow tree grew very fast, and soon they were very comical little fellows with part feathers and part down. One day the Naturalist placed them in a row on a nearby limb. They were much disturbed by the light, and blinked unceasingly. The anxious parents became greatly excited and flew back and forth above them, snapping their bills and complaining until they were replaced in the hollow tree. As the young birds neared maturity they became so well acquainted with the Naturalist that they showed little anxiety because of his visits, although they sometimes looked very much surprised when he placed them in some strange situation.
After the family was grown, Father and Mother Screech Owl decided to move. The hollow tree seemed very much deserted after their departure. In the meantime the Naturalist had made some boxes of old lumber and had fitted them up ready for housekeeping. They were made deep and the cavity was roomy, just the thing for a flicker family he had thought. Some were placed on poles near the edge of the wood and some nailed to the side of the trees near the house.
Since woodpeckers do not supply any nesting material, the Naturalist had placed a quantity of cork chips in each of the boxes to supply the purpose of a nest. Not all of the boxes were occupied by flickers and another summer Mr. and Mrs. Screech Owl took a fancy to them. Father Screech Owl lived in one box not far from the kitchen door, while Mother Screech Owl raised the new family in one nailed to the side of a tree not far away.
By this time the boys were interested in the owl family also, so that there were numerous visitors to the home of the birds in the box. The days passed quickly and the youngsters were getting crowded in their narrow quarters. Where Mother Screech Owl had been very comfortable with her eggs, four grown children found very cramped quarters.
One summer evening, one more venturesome than the rest tried his wings. It was not long after until the last one had left the box and taken to the trees. The Naturalist rejoiced in so many interesting neighbors. He would go out in the early evening and call, “Wher-r-r-r-e are you-u-u-u?” Thus it came about that the owls called to the Naturalist and the Naturalist called to them at the close of nearly every day. While the weird call was music to the Naturalist, an occasional visitor who was not familiar with them would shiver at the sound, and one half grown boy was afraid to go to bed alone because of the doleful sound.
On warm nights the Naturalist loved to roll up in a blanket and lie in the grass. One after another of the birds would come and alight above his head and converse in the friendliest manner. From them he tried to learn the mystery of the night and looking up at the stars wondered whether other Naturalists were making friends with other owls on the planets revolving about the specks of light in the infinite depths of the heavens above. His speculations were to no purpose, for the murmur of the night voices gradually grew faint in his ears and it would seem but a moment until he awoke with the sun streaming full in his face. The Screech Owls were nowhere to be seen, nor would they again respond to his call until the shadows again were falling.
As the nights grew frosty and the voices of the crickets were no longer heard, the Naturalist still called to the owls in early evening. The occasions were less frequent, nor were they prolonged since it was no longer pleasant to lie on the ground in the moonlight. Sometimes on a winter day when the sky was gray, a screech owl would fly out to take a look around. At other times he would appear at the entrance of the box where he was spending the winter days, and remain look out for hours at a time.
Sometimes, when the Naturalist missed the friendly creatures of the summer day which had long since gone to warmer climes, he would go to the box and arouse the little owl. It would fly out into the light and sit for a moment blinking in the sun and then sail away to find a dark place among the shadows of the wood.
Although the Naturalist never knew one of these friendly little birds to commit a single questionable act, there were some who would not have hesitated to take their lives had opportunity offered. They were accused of catching birds and chickens, and other unlikely crimes. Their accusers did not think far enough to know that they were too small to take anything but very young chickens and that even these very young chickens were never abroad at night, the only time when the owl hunts for its prey. One evening, just at early dusk, one of them alighted on a post near Tommy Jone’s barn. Tommy with his ever ready gun did not fail to take note of its presence, and rested his gun across the fence to insure a good aim in the failing light. Just then a mouse ran out from under the barn and attracted the attention of the owl. Down went the bird, and, catching the mouse, returned to its perch on the post. For once Tommy did not shoot.
Only that morning he had caught his old cat in the act of killing a young chicken. For days the young chickens had been missing, one after another, and he had blamed it all on the skunks and hawks which the Naturalist had befriended. Now he had seen with his own eyes the little owl catch the mouse that he had kept the cat to kill. Tommy put down his gun, scratched his head and turned and walked toward the house. Thus was the life of the screech owl saved and the Naturalist vindicated.
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