Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Saga of the Neighbor Owls

We're lucky enough to have a wild pair of owls that consider our yard part of their territory. I try to keep track of the "neighbors" as much as I can, and over the years I realized I can identify some of them as individuals.

I started keeping notes the tail end of 2000. From the begging calls heard in the fall, I'm pretty sure the "neighbors" fledged at least one youngster in 2001, 2002, and 2004. It wasn't until a new female came on territory in 2003 that I noticed I could identify an individual owl. The previous owls' hoots must not have been too distinctive, or I just didn't pay attention, but when this new female showed up hooting in our yard, I knew she was new. He voice was raspy or wheezy, and I was actually worried she might be sick. Well, she's still hooting, so I guess she's not sick! We call her "Wheezy" just to keep things simple. Since her mate needed a name to make him easier to refer to, we settled on "Wendell" for him.

Looking back through my notes, it seems Wheezy came into the picture in August of a year when no young were heard begging--2003. Perhaps the previous female was killed, or something happened to her while she was on the nest??? We'll never know. But since Wheezy's voice is so distinctive, she's been easy to keep track of.

The saga continues. On October 9, 2004 we noted that Wendell and Wheezy were hooting from our yard, but a different pair of owls was hooting to the west. We had never heard more than one pair of owls before. Wendell & Wheezy must have fledged at least one youngster, because a young one continued to beg to the end of October in our yard. But we didn't hear anything more from the new owls.

Until January, that is. We started hearing a new owl hoot way to the west. I think it's a new has many syllables, and much vibrato to its hoots: "Hoo, h-h-h-hoo, hoo, hoo." The male (?) that hoots with her likes to sit on the silos at the farm next door. His hoot has the same syllables as Wendell's, but I'm not sure if it's him or not.

At first I thought Wendell had taken a new mate. But now we hear Wheezy hooting, way to the north of our house, all alone. We've heard her hoot several times (there's no mistaking her hoot), and there is never a male hooting with her...just the new neighbors hooting in her old territory.

So what's going on??? My best guess at this point is that Wendell died late this fall or early winter, Wheezy didn't take a new mate, and a new pair was able to bump her off the main part of her territory and move her off to the north where she's trying to hold her own inferior territory. Did the new male kill Wendell in a territorial dispute???

The new neighbors have spent much of their time the last couple of weeks at the neighboring farm and just to the west. Early this morning they hooted in our yard for the first time. The new female (?) - the one with more syllables to the hoot - hooted a lot as she moved around the yard. The male (?) hooted to the east of the house. By 6:45 AM, the female had switched over to doing squawks, or begging calls, just like Alice's! After a few minutes she flew just into the woods a short ways, and apparently was joined by her mate. He started in on all kinds of weird, excited hoots while she continued to squawk. Believe it or not, I got it all on tape!

So I guess I have a better idea of how I'm supposed to vocalize when Alice does her squawking begging calls...I actually tried it on her this morning. She seemed to get into it a bit...but I don't know visually what I'm supposed to be doing...which was obvious to Alice, I think. Maybe the squawks indicate that the female is receptive??? Maybe all the weird hoots and squawks lead to copulation? I couldn't see a thing, but I don't doubt that Alice knows what goes on out there....

So what was Alice doing this morning while the new neighbors were in our yard? Mostly just watching everything intently, with her ear tufts up. She hooted just a couple of times when I was in her view. Otherwise she spent her time hopping/running from perch to perch to keep the wild owls in view. I'm not quite sure why she doesn't get more upset with the wild owls so close...she's had a number of "hoot-outs" with the neighbor owls over the past years.

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