Drama on Peabody Street
When a Barred Owl turns up, all kinds of things can happen.
(Listen to the radio version here.)
With the record number of Blue Jays passing through Duluth right now, I’m hearing a certain amount of squawking every day, from sunup till sundown. But on Tuesday, September 26, the jays sounded more agitated than usual, so I went out in the yard to check it out. Sure enough, there was a Barred Owl in one of my box elders.
The Blue Jays weren’t the only ones agitated because of the owl. Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers were also calling and darting by, and chickadees joined in a few times.
After a few minutes, the owl flew to a different box elder, this one above my suet feeder. The jays flew off, returning a couple of times in the next couple of hours, but were mostly in migration mode with other important things on their mind.
That second box elder tree has a large squirrel nest maybe 10 feet across from where the owl alighted, which is I think why one squirrel kept making anxious calls and inching up toward the owl. I don’t know if there are baby squirrels in the nest—it seems late in the season—but I don’t know why else a squirrel would approach so close to such a dangerous predator, coming less than three feet from the owl looking up toward the owl’s face, which really was at that moment looking directly toward the nest.
The squirrel inched back down and came up even closer to the owl from the rear.
It kept that up for at least 20 minutes, and if it didn’t manage to scare off the owl, neither did it end up as dinner.
BB the Pileated Woodpecker came by a few times, too. When he first arrived, he flew over the owl a couple of times, I think trying to intimidate the predator. The owl looked at him but stayed put. Then BB alighted on different branches, bobbing his head this way and that, staying focused on the owl even as he worked his way closer to the suet feeder.
Twice he flew off for a few minutes without eating, but when he came back the last time, while he was in agitated mode, a Downy Woodpecker went down to the feeder and started eating. I don’t know if BB saw that as a challenge or what, but he finally dropped down too. He sat in the feeder for about five minutes, but I don’t know how much food he ended up with—whenever I was looking, he was swinging his head back and forth in that same anxious way. We were in the middle of our own dinner so I couldn’t watch every second, but during the times I was watching, he didn’t take even a tiny morsel. He finally gave up and flew off.
Meanwhile, two crows flew in when the owl alighted in the second box elder. They’d have gone ballistic if this were a Great Horned Owl—a species that sometimes raids crow roosts. Barred Owls are far less likely to kill crows, and whenever any predator riles up a bunch of birds, somebody might make a careless mistake which a clever crow might capitalize on. Long ago, a Cooper’s Hawk grabbed my backyard male robin and was ripping out and eating his breast muscles while the poor bird was still alive, screeching as the female robin squawked and dive-bombed the hawk’s head. Two crows flew in and sat quietly in the sidelines. The hawk startled, dropping its prey just long enough for the doomed robin to run under some shrubs, obviously too injured to survive. The crows started walking toward him, but ended up empty clawed—the hawk suddenly flew right under the bushes, grabbed and dispatched the robin, and flew off. At that point the crows took off, too.
But crows do sometimes get the spoils. Back in the 90s, when a Boreal Owl spent at least fifteen minutes trying to capture and kill a flying squirrel that probably outweighed it, two crows quietly stood in the snow watching the whole thing. When the owl finally got in the killing bite and was trying to drag its meal to a more protected spot, the crows walked straight toward it with an intimidating deliberation. Crows weigh two or three times what a Boreal Owl does, and they scared the exhausted little guy off, getting a big payoff after their quarter hour of entertainment. Hoping for that kind of payoff was probably what kept my crows in spectator rather than participant mode while the other birds and one brave squirrel kept trying to drive off the owl.
I had to leave at dusk and don’t know how any of this was resolved. In the morning, the owl was gone and I couldn’t find any feathers, fur, blood, or other evidence of anyone getting killed. BB didn’t return all day, but I’ll never know if that was because the owl had spooked him or he was avoiding my side yard because a moving van was parked next to the fence there all day.
I may well be the only one came away from the event with any kind of reward—a bunch of photographs. The lighting was marginal, the pictures hardly perfect, but a birder with a camera takes what she can get. As long as BB made it through okay, I'm going to call myself lucky.