The Owl’s Nest

By: Linda Thrower

One very cold moonlit night in February many years
ago my husband, a friend and I hauled a ladder
down to a frozen pond to reach the duck box in the
middle of it. An Eastern Screech Owl had been
living in it for quite a few years.

As do many homes, a box requires repairs every so often. The roof had
a leak in the middle of it and water would drip on
top of the owl’s head as it was sunning itself in the
early morning. My husband climbed the ladder
while our friend held it in place on the ice. As I
stood watch the owl came out of its box and flew
around twice, then settled in a tree watching what
was going on with its home. None of us were sure
how it would take to the disturbance, but it seemed
to be just curious about the activities.

Off came the roof and a new one was nailed on.
We had also brought some wood shavings so this
owl could have a new interior as well. Owls do not
bring any nesting materials into their boxes, they
just use the pellets that they cough up to add
comfort to their homes. As my husband began
cleaning out the contents of the box he asked:
“What do you want me to do with this stuff?”

Since this nesting box was situated only about
100m from a bird banding station I began to wonder
if this little owl was eating banded birds. I asked
that we carefully remove the contents to be
examined at a later time. Now I had a very stinky
container full of pellets from many years, it was
about 8 to 10 cm thick. We took down the ladder
and in no time the owl was back at home sitting on
its new clean wood shavings.

Over the next few years the contents of the owl box
were on display at naturalist clubs, Girl Guide
camps, schools and many other interested
organisations. Even though it was now frozen
everyone said the same thing: “Wow, does that
ever stink!” Funny, the Screech Owl didn’t seem to
think so.

Once the contents were done with the Show-and-
Tells they returned into the freezer for such a time
when I could pick it apart. It took me years, but
finally this summer I took it out to see what I could
find – besides the stink, that is.

The largest item in the box was a very old Wood
Duck egg. Obviously this owl had evicted the Wood
Ducks and moved in. Someone else may have tried
to live in the box at some point, because among the
pellets were 14 acorns that a squirrel had tucked
away for the winter. Even the wasps had made an
attempt at staying in the box, but there was only
one paper wasp nest.

Layer after layer of pellets revealed more and
more. There were numerous feathers, but not from
the Wood Duck, these were tail and wing feathers
belonging to Blue Jays and Hairy and Downy
Woodpeckers. It looked like this little owl had an
appetite for some large birds. The final feather
count was 35. Besides the Blue Jays’ and
Woodpeckers’ feathers there were some that
looked like they may have come from some kind of
Sparrow judging by the colour and size and a few
white feathers, tail feathers? I couldn’t be sure.
Only one Cardinal feather – maybe they are tastier
than those of the Blue Jays and the Woodpeckers!
There was a single Crayfish claw as well, maybe
from the Wood Duck? It was under a few layers of
pellets, but not on the bottom, so I wonder about
that one, too. I found the top part of a Hairy
Woodpecker’s beak, but no bottom. One small
piece looked like it could have been a Downy
Woodpecker’s beak.

As you would expect, there were lots of mouse
bones: 40 skulls (minus bottom jaw), 69 lower
mandibles, 5 ribs, 1 larger rib one and hundreds of
leg and assorted mouse bones. 11 larger leg bones
presumably from a Blue Jay or a Woodpecker, plus
3 legs of a smaller bird complete with claws.

After all that, the question remained: Was there any
bird bands in all those pellets? The answer is YES.
There were 8 bands found in the contents of this
owl box. Here’s the list of what banded birds the
owl had been eating:

1 Swamp Sparrow banded on 10/12/2000
1 Blue Jay banded on 10/18/2001
1 Black-capped Chickadee banded on 07/18/2001
1 Black-capped Chickadee banded on 09/18/2003
1 Black-capped Chickadee banded on 10/12/2005
1 Song Sparrow banded on 10/07/2001
1 Song Sparrow banded on 04/22/2005
1 Slate-colored Junco banded on 10/19/2004

I find it strange that 5 of these birds were banded in
October… maybe this little owl started to feel the
cold, or maybe it sensed that the banding station
wasn’t going to be open for much longer. Get those
little birds now!

I would have thought that at leastone of the bands
would be from a Woodpecker, but
no bands on those meals. However, I did get the
answer to those white feathers: They were all that
was left of a Junco.

My guess about the Sparrow
feathers was correct; all those birds were banded
100m away from the owl box.

One owl feather didn’t look like it belonged to a Screech Owl, it is
brown with stripes, and this owl was gray. Of
course I could be wrong, I can’t say that I know all
owl feathers.

So, that’s how I spent my summer. I hope you used
yours for something equally as interesting as
picking apart this owls nest!