Hart Beat by Hart Rufe

First published Dec. 22, 2013 ... Contact Hart at hartrufe@gmail.com

Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owls used to be seen in St. Lucie County, now they are difficult, if not impossible to find.


Do you know why owls are considered to be wise? Apparently, it goes all the way back to early mythology when Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, had an owl for her symbol. Then too, it was easy for the lore and legend of wise owls to grow because of the owl’s naturally wise appearance, with eyes that look straight forward and a head that can revolve almost 360 degrees.

Perhaps owl wisdom was best summed up in a poem by Edward H. Richards, “A wise old owl sat on an oak; The more he saw the less he spoke; The less he spoke the more he heard; Why aren’t we like that wise old bird?” For more, see: http://www.ask.com/question/why-are-owls-considered-wise.

Certainly owls are in the news currently with the report of a major southward irruption of Snowy Owls from their normal tundra habitat, resulting in Snowy Owls appearing in unforeseen numbers, and as far south as South Carolina; see www.nemesisbird.com/news/snowy-owl-irruption-watch-2013-14/. Great Horned Owl And the traditional New York-Boston feud was fueled by the fact that JFK Airport in New York briefly shot Snowy Owls to prevent them flying into planes, while Logan Airport in Boston trapped and transferred them away from the airport for the same reason. Advantage Boston! See this article from Slate magazine.(For even more, click on the high-lighted words in the article.)

Great Horned OwlsMeanwhile, here in Florida, with a five year Breeding Bird Atlas Project underway, winter is the time that owls are engaged in their breeding activity and much effort is being made to find and document all the breeding owls throughout the state, as well as here in St Lucie County. So, what owls should Breeding Bird searchers be looking for in Florida, and particularly, here in St Lucie County?

First, the largest and easiest to see is the Great Horned Owl (above, left and right). They often vocalize at dawn and dusk, but can be seen during the daytime. Screech OwlGreat Horned Owls do not build their own nests but will commandeer a nest previously built by a an enterprising hawk pair, and begin their egg laying and hatching process well before the hawk pair are ready, forcing the hawks to build a new nest for their own reproduction.

Screech Owls (left) are the most common of our owls, both in our home area in Pennsylvania, and in our home area here in St Lucie County. As cavity nesters, they can be found in almost any patch of woods with some larger trees, but are more difficult to actually get to see. However, sometimes they will back-yard nest in a bird box built to their specific dimensions and requirements. Barred Owl

Barred Owls (right), also cavity nesters are even harder to see, unless a birder knows where a pair is setting up house-keeping. Usually found not too far from a swampy or wetland area, they will readily respond to an imitation or recording of their call.

Barn Owls (below left), originally (and still, sometimes) cavity nesters, have adapted to barns and other human structures. Sugar cane and vineyardfarmers have discovered that Barn Owls are very effective for rodent control and Barn Owlhave installed Barn Owl bird boxes in their fields with great success. While Barn Owls are almost gone in many areas of Pennsylvania, they are merely “uncommon” in Florida, including St Lucie County.

Burrowing Owls occur north, west and south of St Lucie County, but Jewel and I are still searching for our first sighting in the county. We have been informed that they formerly were found on the Adams Ranch and at the County owned Bluefield Ranch, but are no longer at either location. They are readily seen at Brian Piccolo Park in Hollywood, Florida (See andygarcia1.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/the-burrowing-owls-of-brian-piccolo-park/, for one visitor’s story) and at Cape Coral, just north of Fort Myers on Florida’s west coast, where they actually nest in resident’s front lawns. See this article from capecoral.net

Snowy OwlNo, we have not heard of any Snowy Owls (right) being seen in Florida yet, but if there ever was a year for it to happen, this might be THE YEAR.  And they can show up anywhere, but habitat resembling their native tundra, such as closely mown fields, or beaches, would be the best places to look. The wise old Snowy Owls have undoubtedly moved south because their regular diet of rodents, particularly lemmings, has probably crashed this year. Every year a few come south, and in 2009, Jewel and I photographed the one presented here at Round Valley Reservoir in New Jersey.

In closing, I think it would still be better to be thought of as a “wise old owl” than a “crazy old coot.” No one has ever attributed wisdom to a coot. Of course, it also has been said that “Wisdom comes with age; but sometimes, age comes alone.” Everyone loves owls, JFK Airport excepted. (12/22/13)

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