Urban Owls

It’s easier than you think to host owls in your own yard. All they need is an appropriate sized nest hole with a good sized cavity behind it, a water source, and freedom from pesticides which might accumulate in their bodies and harm them. As long as there is an ample food supply within a short flight distance they will appreciate you supplying an artificial cavity to nest in.

Red phase male Eastern Screech Owl takes a break from feeding duties on a utiliity box, Spring 2017

I write a lot about our refuge, but our actual house sits on a small suburban lot with a postage stamp sized yard compared to the house I grew up in. It’s not without its benefits.  It means there’s less ground to water during Texas’ summer watering restrictions.  Okay, I think I just got to the end of the benefits list!

When we first moved in to our newly built house, they literally unrolled Bermudagrass  sod onto our back yard one day.  A few days later, my husband found me standing at the back window crying. Concerned, he wanted to know what the trouble was now that we were in our shiny new house.  I told him I NEEDED plants. I couldn’t see how to stay happy without some kind of plants in the yard to look at. Turf grass did NOT count. Wood fences definitely did not count.

We quickly bought a tree which my father helped us plant, and planned some garden spaces for the following year. Just being able to watch some leaves wave in the breeze while the baby slept, and knowing that the garden was actually coming soon was enough to keep me sane.

Winter 2017: Male Screech Owl peeks out as squirrel goes about his business unconcerned.

That tree is now a towering  Red Oak, and a few years ago we decided it was big enough, and  time to try our luck with urban forest dwellers—Eastern Screech Owls. Richard built a Screech Owl Box from simple plans found on the internet and fastened it to the tree in 2015. We waited two years and nothing happened except that a few squirrels went in and out of the box on rainy days. Then, in early 2017, we began to hear the unmistakable calls of Screech Owls in our yard.  It wasn’t long before we had a pair of owls nesting in our box and raising their babies in our tiny suburban yard.

Winter 2017: Red phase male Eastern Screech Owl in the box

We were lucky enough to have a red phase male and a gray phase female, so it was easy to tell which owl we were looking at when they weren’t together. The males are smaller than the females of this species. The owls got reasonably accustomed to our presence and did not worry about us in the yard. We made it a habit to look right at them and to speak softly to them each time we went out.

Spring2017: Gray phase female
Baby makes an appearance, late Spring 2017!

Our neighbors also built an owl house and some friends a few blocks away did too. They both had owls the following two years, but in 2018 and 2019, our box went unused.  We wondered why we had been abandoned. We cleaned the box twice.

Spring 2020: Red phase female? Looks big to me.

This year, we began to hear owls in the yard more frequently again, and there appears to be some nesting activity! So far, we’ve only seen a red face peeking out, but it seems like a big face, so we might have a red female this time. We’re so excited to host these charming little owls again. They provide free rodent control, reduce the number of imported lizards around, and provide us a lot of enjoyment.  We can count on seeing them in their nestbox entrance at dusk, and also at random times in the middle of the day. It’s good to know my yard, now full of plants, provides for their needs and the needs of their babies.

[Appologies to my readers for the photo quality! None of our lenses work well in low light at the distances required to keep from disturbing the owls, so we may only ever get fuzzy record shots like these. Some were shot through a window, which never helps]