At least one flood survivor

We had little hope for the Wood Duck box. It had been occupied by the Eastern Screech-Owl prior to the deluge. The box was completely submerged at the worst of it. Did the owl drown? Did some other animal float out to it in the current to take shelter, only to be trapped?

Today was the time to face the music. The box – if it was still there – needed to be repaired and its pine shavings replaced in the hope that a Screech-Owl or  a Wood Duck would nest in it this winter or spring. This was going to be a solo task since I didn’t want Dawn to have to see a drowned critter in the box.

The box looked really rough.

Indeed, the box had survived. A good sign – a Wood Duck box isn’t especially cheap to rebuild and remount. A tap on the door opened it just a crack – argh. Just what I feared. A Screech-Owl lying in the bottom. I steeled myself for the sad task of emptying the remains.

But then, a bill click and an eye blink….


Looking none the worse for wear, after all!

A pleasant surprise, indeed! A quite healthy rufous phase Eastern Screech Owl was hunkered down on sodden pine shavings. Screech-Owls have a reputation for tolerating minor human disturbances for box maintenance. Baylor University researcher Fredrick Gehlbach, who maintained a decades-long Screech-Owl nest box monitoring program, noted that they were amenable to having a box cleaned.* Ok, so we’re giving this a shot. I carefully reached in to rake out the nasty flood-soaked shavings. No problem. A little more raking elicits an eye-squint and a bill click. Keep moving. Rake more shavings and toss them into the creek. Rake and toss. A slow and steady stream of bill clicks.

We’re at the crux. I have to get underneath it. Wearing leather work gloves, I gently lift the owl with my left hand – this owl is SOOOOO warm! The body heat is conducted even through the glove. The owl weighs nothing. Bill clicks as I pull the last of the shavings out. I put it down in the now-bare box. “Harrumph,” the owl appears to think. “Time to go.” And with that, it hops to the door, gives me an over-the-shoulder “eat poop and die” facial expression, and floats to the Holly tree to wait for me to finish.

I move fast now. Rip open the plastic bag of fresh shavings. Cram cram cram them into the box. Uh oh. Too many. Rake some out. Pat down the thick layer of fluffy and dry shavings. Admire my masterpiece of owl interior decoration. Close the box. Look around. Owl is gone. Our work is done here. Time to clean up at the house.

*Note: While officials usually tolerate minor disturbances of birds in the course of nest box maintenance, Federal and state laws generally forbid handling of wild native birds unless the handler has the appropriate permits. 

Let’s talk nest boxes

It’s late fall, when a young naturalist’s thoughts ought to turn (at least momentarily) to nest box building. Boxes for Wood Ducks and the cavity-nesting owls should be up by early January. We bought our materials about this time last year for a box building bonanza on Christmas Eve.

A Wood Duck box and a Downy/Hairy Woodpecker box that we built.

Our neighbors were intrigued enough about our Wood Duck box (now an Eastern Screech-Owl box!) that I thought I’d share the Ducks Unlimited nest box plan that we used. It worked really well.

A Wood Duck nest box that uses a section of stove pipe as a predator baffle. It seems to have worked. Of all of our trail cam video of raccoons near it, none of the videos captured the raccoons or any other predator entering the box.

For my neighbors, I’m extending the offer to help you build or put up a box if I can get the free time. Some things, such as the drill bit for the entry hole, are better borrowed as they’re a little expensive to purchase for a one-time use. The obvious solution is to BUILD MORE BOXES (of course!). I also have a small supply of bailing wire if you need that 18-20″ of it to put up the predator baffle.

Are you going to save the world with a nest box? No. Neither Wood Ducks nor Eastern Screech-Owls are in any serious danger as species. A nest box, though, is  a great way to bring some very interesting animals within a convenient observation range. It just takes some precautions to avoid exposing them to predators, too. Kids can also find these very intriguing, and they’re great helpers for the annual box-cleaning that’s required. What a great way to spend an hour with the grandkids while separating them from all their electronic distractions!