By Bryan Stevens
Erwin resident Evelyn King sent me an email and a photograph of a fun discovery she made beneath the deck at her home. The photo accompanying her email depicted a roosting owl.
“I wanted to identify it as a barred owl,” Evelyn wrote in her email. The owl’s appearance, however, didn’t quite match a barred owl.
“Because of its horned appearance, I thought it must be a horned owl,” she added, although there was still a problem with that identification.
“Its small size and markings confuse me. What kind of owl is it?”
Evelyn wondered if I could help clear up the confusion, which I was happy to do. The owl at her home turned out to be an Eastern screech-owl, which is one of the smaller owls in the region. Like the great horned owl, the screech owl has ear tufts, which are simply ornamental feathers atop their heads. The decorative tufts have nothing to do with hearing.
Evelyn discovered the owl perched on the gas line under her deck that is connected to her outdoor grill.
An adult Eastern screech-owl is usually between six and nine inches in length and weighs only about five or six ounces. By way of comparison, a great horned owl can weigh between three and five pounds and reach a length of 25 inches. Many people upon first seeing a screech-owl assume it’s a baby owl. On a recent South Carolina trip I made several visits to Brookgreen Gardens near Pawleys Island. On several of these visits I attended the daily educational programs conducted by the attraction’s zoo staff that are designed to introduce visitors to various examples of native wildlife. The presenter usually introduced a couple of animals to the audience. On several occasions, the show featured birds of prey, including hawks and owls.
Two of the shows featured Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, and people in the audience invariably asked if she was a baby owl. To their astonishment, they learned that Lucy was an adult screech-owl and unlikely to grow any bigger. There are larger owls in our region, including the great horned owl and barred owl. Lucy and her kin must avoid these much larger owls, which would have no hesitation at trying to make a meal of the much smaller owl.
Although they prefer woodlands, screech owls have proven remarkably adaptable to manmade environments. I suspect the owl at Evelyn’s home is utilizing the deck for the excellent shelter and protection it provides. A cozy space beneath a deck is probably much more comfortable than a cavity in a tree.
on their way
According to the website Hummingbird Guide, ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return to Tennessee and Virginia the first week of April. These tiny flying jewels arrive earlier in North and South Carolina, typically arriving the third week of March in those states.
The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand. These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.
Individuals who feed birds know that it can be an expensive undertaking. The cost of providing sunflower seeds and suet cakes for hungry flocks during the winter months can nibble at the monthly budget, but hardly anyone would begrudge the sparrows, finches, wrens and woodpeckers. After all, they return the favor, putting on daily shows just outside our windows.
The same is true of hummingbirds. For a relatively modest investment, people putting out feeders or planting nectar-producing flowers are rewarded with the fun and amusing antics of these pint-sized and hyperactive birds.
Attracting hummingbirds is generally much less expensive than feeding other birds. After all, you need only a mixture of sugar water — four parts water to one part sugar — to fill a feeder and catch the attention of a visiting hummer. A few pounds of sugar will last a lot longer than that bag of sunflower seeds, and it’s much less expensive to purchase at the grocery store.
Do not add red coloring or dyes to your sugar water mixture. Some studies have indicated these substances are harmful to hummingbird health. This means tossing out many of the pre-packaged mixtures sold with sugar water feeders. After all, the entire purpose is to attract hummingbirds. Risking their health is simply not acceptable. If you do want to take extra steps to attract these diminutive, feathered sugar junkies, consider supplementing your landscape with a variety of flowering plants. To explore some of the best choices for flowers to tempt hummingbirds, visit the website of The Hummingbird Society at www.hummingbirdsociety.org.
I always put out my sugar water feeders in early April. I usually end up waiting a couple of weeks before the first hummingbird appears, but it’s worth the wait. I miss these tiny birds during the winter months, which they spend in much warmer surroundings in southern Mexico and Central America. A male with the namesake red throat is usually the first to appear at my feeders. However, female ruby-throated hummingbirds, which lack the dazzling ruby throat patch, are migrating, too. The females usually lag a week or two behind the pace of the migration for the males.
As always, I enjoy hearing from readers about their first spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Readers are encouraged to jot down the date and the time of arrival when they observe their first hummingbird of the season. If the sighting’s duration allows you to verify, note whether the hummingbird was a male or female. These reports can be emailed to me at email@example.com. Together, we’ll track the arrival of these tiny birds as they return to the region.
To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.