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VIII

THE OWL, BIRD OF NIGHT


"Granny"a portrait of a half-grown Barn Owl

THERE is not a tumble-down barn in the country that does not shelter good material for a naturalist's note-book. Take it all in all the old shacks are the most productive. If there is a hole and a snug corner some wren or bluebird has likely climbed in and built a home. If it be near town some English sparrow has perhaps been living there all winter, and, at the first sign of spring, has begun carrying in grass and sticks. Or, if the barn is very shaky and leaky, it may make a home for an owl.

The Barn Owl (Strix pratincola) is not hard to please when he needs a nesting place. He takes the steeple of a church, an old hollow sycamore along the creek, or a cave in the mountains. I know of one pair that has lived for years in the tower of a court-house. The town clock just below the nest must have been a nuisance at first during the day-sleep, but it was likely taken as something that could not be helped, as we take the clang and rumble of the street-cars under our windows at night.

Years ago our nearest neighbor got a pair of pigeons, sawed two holes up in the corner of his barn and nailed up a soap box for them. The pigeons disappeared one day and the next spring a pair of barn owls moved in. That was seven or eight years ago, but the old dusty box in the gable is still rented to the same pair. I have no doubt they will stay as long as the barn lasts.

Our neighbor says his barn is worn out, and resembles Mr. Burroughs' apple tree, which was not much good for apples but always bore a good crop of birds. The owl home is a valuable asset of the barn. The owner knows something of owls as well as of fruit trees; no other barn about the neighborhood shelters such a valuable family of birds, and he guards them as closely as he guards his cherries. The nest has never been robbed, and when we spoke of photographing his owls he looked doubtful until we promised him the birds should not be harmed.

The barn owl is a queer-looking tenant. No one is very fond of an owl. More than that, his actions are against him. It's natural that we should not care much for a fellow who is up and sneaking around all night and sleeping through the day. There is always some suspicion about a night-prowler, whether he be bird, man, or beast. However, I have often watched the barn owl, and have studied his habits, so that I am sure he did more for our neighbor in one night than the pigeons, swallows, and wrens did in a month. Not in singing, mercy no! Who ever heard of a song coming from a hooked bill? It was in real service about the farm, as watchman or policeman, to rid the place of injurious animals.

It was not an easy matter to photograph these barn owls in the very peak of the old barn. The minute we came near the nest box the old owl pitched headlong out of the hole and landed in a willow tree opposite. We had to climb a ladder and swing into the rafters to reach the nest. In such a place we could hardly handle a camera. There was not even a loft to work from, so we set up a long ladder and nailed to it a couple of cross-pieces strong enough to hold a board. Crawling up in a stooping position we took the back out of the nest box and fixed it so that it would drop down to show the inside, and then could be fastened up again.

A month later we climbed up into the gable end of the barn and pulled out three of the funniest, fuzziest, monkey-faced little brats that I have ever set eyes upon. They blinked, snapped their bills, and hissed like a boxful of snakes. We took them to the ground and doubled up in laughter at their queer antics. They bobbed and screwed around in more funny attitudes in a minute than any contortionist I ever saw.

We found them graded in size and height, as carefully as a carpenter builds the steps of a staircase. They were lumpy-looking, as if some amateur taxidermist had taken them in hand and rammed the cotton in, wad at a time with a stick, till he had the youngsters bulging out in knobs all over.

The eldest we called the colonel, but looking at him from a humanized standpoint, it seemed to me he had been put together wrongly, for his chest had slipped clear around on his back. At times he was a peaceable-looking citizen, but he was always shy and cautious. He turned his back on the camera in disgust, or sat in a sour state of silence, but one eye was always open, watching every movement we made.

While the nestlings were in the downy stage the mother always stayed with them during the day. She seemed to be a widow, with triplets on her hands, for we never saw the father. If he came to see the children or to help in the house it was only in the dark of the night.

When the nestlings grew older the mother slept in the cypress tree during the day. Twice I tried to climb the tree to get a good view of her, but each time she flew out as soon as I got a few feet up. She seemed to have no trouble in seeing by day as well as by night, but the eyes of the owl are undoubtedly much keener after dark.

We crept out one night and hid in a brush-heap by the barn. It was not long before the scratching and soft hissing of the young owls told us their breakfast-time had come. The curtain of the night had fallen. The day creatures were at rest. Suddenly a shadow flared across the dim-lit sky; there was a soundless sweeping of wings as the shadow winnowed back again. The young owls, by instinct, knew of the approach of food, for there was a sudden outburst in the soap box like the whistle of escaping steam. It was answered by a rasping, witching screech. I thought of the time when we used to creep out at the dead of night and scare an old negro by drawing a chunk of resin along a cord attached to the top of an empty tin can. Again and again the shadow came and went. Then I crept into the barn, felt my way up, and edged along the rafters to the hen-roosty old box. Silently I waited and listened to a nasal concert that might have come from a cageful of snakes. As soon as food was brought I lit a match, and saw one of the little "monkey-faces" tearing the head from the body of a young gopher.

The barn owl kills the largest squirrel quickly and easily, for the animal apparently terror-stricken does not show much fight. With sharp talons stuck firmly into the back of the squirrel, and with wings spread, an owl can break the animal's neck with a few hard blows of his beak. The head is usually eaten first, either because that is a favorite part, or because the destruction of the head gives the bird better assurance of the animal's death.



Full-grown young Barn Owls at the age of eight weeks


Nest and eggs of the Barn Owl


Downy young Barn Owls about three weeks old

The next time I climbed the cobwebbed rafters to photograph the young owls I cautiously thrust in my hand to pull out the nearest nestling. In a twinkling he fell flat on his back and clutched me with both claws. Of all the grips I ever felt, that was the most like a needle-toothed steel trap. I felt the twinge of pain as the sharp talons sank into the flesh. I cringed and the grip tightened. The slightest movement was the signal for a tenser grasp. It was the clutch that fastens in the prey and never relaxes till the stillness of death follows. I hung to the rafters and gritted my teeth till I could wedge in my thumb and pry the claws loose.

The young owls were hardly old enough to fly, but they could raise their wings and run like a cat for the darkest corner. We had never tried the camera on such a ferocious lot of birds. They knew the art of self-defense like a professional prize-fighter. Approach one, and he was on his guard. He would turn on his back in a second and throw up his claws. "Come on, I'm ready," he seemed to say, and we kept our distance. The oldest one had a villainous temper; he was as much opposed to having his picture taken as a superstitious Indian. Generally he sat with his chin resting on his chest like a broken-down lawyer. Once, when the photographer was least expecting it, he dropped on to his trousers' leg as lightly as a feather, but with the strength and tenacity of a mad bull-pup. The claws sank through to the flesh, and before they could be pried loose they had drawn blood in three places.

All birds Of prey swallow a great deal of indigestible matter, such as the fur and bones of animals and the feathers of birds. After the nutritious portions have been absorbed, the rest of the mass is formed into pellets in the stomach, and is vomited up before a new supply of food is eaten. By the examination of these pellets, found about the nest or under the roost, a scientist can get a good idea of the character of the food that has been eaten. Besides, one generally finds in the nest the remains of creatures upon which the young birds have been feeding.

The birds of prey are well able to fulfil their mission in the world of natural things. All parts of the organic world are linked together in a thousand ways, and one form of life is dependent upon other forms, while the whole has been summed up in a general law called the "balance of nature." If, for example, we were to kill off our birds of prey, we would have no check against the rodents that infest our fields. Nature made these birds with strong wings and acute eyes; she gave them powerful claws to pierce the entrails of the small animals, and strong, hooked bills for tearing the flesh. They digest food so rapidly that they are continually on the hunt, and eat a large amount each day.

The owls as a family are the most helpful birds of prey to the farmer. With few exceptions they are night hunters. Their eyes and ears are remarkably acute, and are keenest in the early hours of the night and morning. Many harmful rodents are most active in their search for food during the night, and the owls are the natural check upon them. The hawk hunts by day and the owl by night, and the work of one supplements that of the other.

A pair of barn owls occupied one of the towers of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington. When the young were half-grown the floor was strewn with pellets. An examination of two hundred of these showed a total of four hundred and fifty-four skulls. Four hundred and twelve of these were mice, twenty rats, twenty shrews, one mole, and one vesper sparrow.

A family of young barn owls will number from three to seven birds. It is hard to believe what an amount of vermin a family of owls will consume. An old owl will capture as much or more food than a dozen cats in a night. The owlets are always hungry; they will eat their own weight in food every night, and more, if they can get it. A case is on record where a half-grown owl was given all the mice it could eat. It swallowed eight, one after the other. The ninth followed all but the tail, which for some time hung out of the bird's mouth. The rapid digestion of the birds of prey is shown by the fact that in three hours the little glutton was ready for a second meal, and swallowed four more mice. If this can be done by a single bird, what effect must a whole nestful of owls have on the vermin of a community?

I wondered at the changes in the owl faces as they grew older. When I first saw them in white down, I thought the face was that of a sheep, and then a monkey, and then I didn't know just what it resembled. The third time we visited the nest each youngster had a face that surely looked like some old grandmother dressed in a nightcap. Later on, when we saw them full-grown, they had grown to be more owl-like and dignified.

An owl spreads terror among the small ground folk as a ghost among negroes. It is the owl's shadow-silent wings, his sharp, sound-catching ear, and his night-piercing eyes that make him the superior of the mouse, the mole, the gopher, and the squirrel. He fans over the field with an ominous screech that sets a mouse scampering to his hole, but his ear has caught the footstep; those wings are swift, those steel trap claws are always ready; his drop is sure, his grip is death.

It would be difficult to point out a more useful bird than the barn owl in any farming country. Like many other birds, it deserves the fullest protection, but man is often its worst enemy.




THE OWL FAMILY

The Owls are distinguished from all other birds by having very large heads. The large, round eyes looking forward instead of sidewise give a full-face view. The bill is hooked; the claws long, hooked, and very sharp. They live on animal food, catching small animals, birds, reptiles, and insects at night-time. The strange and weird cries this bird makes at night connect it with things superstitious.

American Barn Owl (Strix pratincola): Male and female, face, white edged with yellowish; under parts, pure white to yellowish-brown, dotted with blackish spots; upper parts, yellowish-brown, more or less mottled with gray. Lives throughout the warmer parts of North America, where it nests in February and March. Nests in hollow trees, caves, towers, and belfries. Eggs, from three to eight, dirty white.



A study in sentiment 


Barn Owl in full flight

Half-grown Barn Owls, about six weeks old

Young Barn Owl in fighting attitude


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