Hosting a Barn Owl -June 2016

Housing Nature’s Mousetrap

by: Virginia Andrews

photography by: Courtesy of Maria Mitchell Association

Everyone knows about Nantucket’s housing shortage. It’s a hard place to find a home in which to raise a family. But that isn’t the only residential crunch the island has experienced. Always on the night shift, Barn Owls are some of our most hard-working year-round residents. But in the early years it looked like they might not be able to find a talon-hold to call home.

Nantucket forms the extreme northeastern edge of the Barn Owl’s range. As a mainly southern species, they are sensitive to weather extremes. On our damp and windy island they need shelter. Their feathers can get wet and lose their insulation value. And unlike Snowy Owls, which have virtual mukluks of feathers on their legs and feet, Barn Owls have bare skin. They literally get cold feet.

Another problem is that their all-time favorite food is the meadow vole. When snow covers the ground for an extended period, the grocery store is effectively closed. With a high metabolism, they require frequent re-stoking. By the end of winter, their reserves are exhausted. Without shelter it is difficult for them to endure a period of starvation. But another species stepped in to help: humans.

Barn Owls have a long association with people in North America. As mostly nocturnal hunters, Barn Owls were close by, but seldom noticed. Or at least, not always pleasantly. Their unearthly screeches, sounding more like a murder in progress than bird-

song, undoubtedly spawned many a ghost story. Their dark eyes, heart-shaped faces, white plumage and silent flight do nothing to dispel the sense of the otherworldly.

As people spread west the owls adapted successfully, making a transition from natural tree cavities or rocky cliffs to living in barns or sheds. Horses and other livestock warmed the barns. Feed and bedding naturally drew rodents, the owls’ favorite food. For a while it was assisted living at its best. But with the coming of the automobile and the tractor, life changed yet again.

Barn Owls do not really migrate. The young fly in search of territory after fledging, but usually don’t go very far. Nantucket never had a Barn Owl sighting until 1963. First seen on Martha’s Vineyard in 1918, and breeding there since 1928, apparently no adventurous young owlets wanted to cross the water. It is not known where our first owl landed, whether it dared Muskeget Channel, or drifted down from Monomoy Island to Great Point. But we do have a pretty good idea about what happened next.

In the fall of 1966, someone found a Barn Owl with a broken wing in Madaket and called Edith Andrews, the island’s ornithologist and incidentally this author’s mother. She took it to the vet. The wing was too damaged to save. The choices were euthanasia or amputation, followed by lifetime care for the handicapped bird. Of course we took it home to the University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station, where the Andrews family were caretakers. Named “Owlbert” he lived happily in his enclosure, a large cage sheltered by cedar trees. He had an elevated house with a ramp that he could navigate using his remaining wing for balance, and a patch of brushy ground.

In the spring of 1968, a wild owl was seen and heard flying near the cage. After some deliberation, Owlbert was given his freedom, and an owlish romance ensued. All summer the soft chiming and castanet clicking of bills sounded in the night.

The next call came on Sept. 19, from the local animal shelter: “Someone brought in four baby owls in a box. Will you raise them?”

Edith asked the logical question: “Well, what do they look like?”

“They look like something from outer space.”

So four fuzzy white baby Barn Owls came to live with us. Within two days they were being fed by the wild owl, which left carefully-prepared mice for them every night on their box. Three survived to fledge, shedding their mother-of-pearl fluff for soft brown and white feathers.

Still, Barn Owls were only casual nesters on Nantucket until the mid-1980s. It wasn’t easy. One year a pair tried hotel living. They nested in what looked like the ideal room: one of the decorative turrets atop the old Sea Cliff Inn on Cliff Road. Unfortunately their screams disturbed the guests below. The nest was above the bridal suite. Another used a chimney. A pair got into a house through an open window. Roosting on a high railing, they cast pellets and whitewash into the grand piano below. Two pairs tried living on boats. One lost the eggs to the roll of the tide; the other took over a houseboat. There the eggs actually hatched. A box was quickly built for them by a nearby property owner and the young were transferred by means of a canvas bag. The heirloom rug they had been sleeping on in the boat was an additional donation, and everyone was soon right at home. One man had a nest in his barn, and became so enamored that he built a special box with a viewing window in the attic of his house, cutting an owl door through the siding. Soon more people got interested in sponsoring Barn Owls and constructing homes for them. Islander Ted Godfrey built and set up many of the boxes still in use.

By 1990 the population had risen to over two dozen. But weather – in the form of food availability – is still a major factor. The harsh winter of 1994 knocked their numbers back down to one pair. But the population rebounded. Within a couple of years it was nearly replaced. In 2010 it reached an all-time high of over 60 birds. Impacted again by subsequent snowy winters, the remaining owls were again able to recover quickly, thanks to the shelters sponsored by generous landowners.

Today, the Maria Mitchell Association continues the research started back in 1966 and has its own “Adopt a Barn Owl” nesting-box program. So it is likely that with help, nature’s mousetrap will continue to survive on Nantucket. ///

Virginia Andrews writes the weekly “Island Bird Sightings” column for The Inquirer and Mirror and is a regular feature writer for Nantucket Today.

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