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Hoo Gives a Hoot?
by Kenny Coogan - posted 10/01/15

Closing up my potting shed one evening, I heard an eerie, but welcomed, soft neigh originate from a cluster of oak trees in the corner of my yard. Thirty seconds later, I heard a horse-like whinny call in the opposite corner from the 40-foot-tall clumping bamboo. I was surrounded. I quickly went to see if they had moved in the nest box that the previous owners had attached to an oak tree about 15 feet off of the ground – they had not.

A few short weeks later, after the courting had subsided, I saw the two new residents: Mr. and Mrs. Screech Owl. I checked a few weeks for signs of chicks and it appeared that they were unsuccessful. Then one night a fully feathered chick popped its head out of the nest box! The next day two chicks flew the coop.

Hosting and inviting owls to your garden has many advantages. Although not seen as often as diurnal birds, when owls are spotted it is a thrill for all. Their distinct vocalizations often give their locale away, as they fly silently with their fringed feathers hunting for vermin. Having pest control working not only for free, but throughout the night unseen, is an added bonus. Owls are an environmentally safe form of pest control – no harsh chemicals needed. These nocturnal birds will coexist with your songbirds because they are active at different times, so you can still enjoy your passerines. With five distinct owl species in Florida any garden can accommodate these native raptors with a few organic changes to your landscape.

 


Eastern Screech Owl
Megascops asio

Call: Descending thrill, tremolo or whinny
Height: 6.3-10 inches

Besides the several mature live and laurel oaks on my property providing shelter for owls, another possible attractant is my brush pile. This pile decomposes large bulky items that I do not have the time or resources to make small enough to fit in my two compost bins. While large branches create structure, small twigs, leaves and grass clippings provide nesting material for songbirds and shelter for small animals like reptiles and rodents – the latter being a popular menu item for owls. Adding a bird feeder near the brush pile will invite songbirds to recycle your yard waste into nesting material. Leaving seeds and nuts on the ground will entice rodents, which in turn entice owls.

 

 


Burrowing Owl
Athene cunicularia

Call: Series of rattles, clucks, and chatters
Height: 7.5-10 inches

Many burrowing owls can be found in the south from Cape Coral to Fort Lauderdale. These birds, unlike the others on the list, prefer open areas and are active during the day. Fewer trees allow them to monitor aerial predators, such as hawks. Burrowing owls live in 5-6-inch diameter holes in the ground, and unlike their name suggests, prefer to move in pre-dug nests. If you have thick grass, clear a 2-foot circle and dig a burrow at a 45-degree angle. Place the soil in front of the burrow to create a watch post for the owls.

 


Barn Owls
Tyto alba

Call: Long harsh scream, a few seconds long
Height: 12.5-15.5 inches

Barn owls are found throughout the world. They can take up residence in abandoned sheds, barns and silos. Designating a rustic area of the garden where pruning and maintenance are kept to a minimum will encourage these birds to move in. Reducing widespread exterior lighting such as flood lights will also help.

 


Barred Owl
Strix varia

Call: Eight or nine notes, described as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?”
Height: 16–19 inches

While owls get a majority of their water from their diet, the barred owl will especially appreciate ponds, birdbaths and other water features. Barred owls are one of a few owl species that hunt aquatic animals such as snakes, fish, invertebrates and amphibians. These birds can be found naturally in wetland areas and are sometimes called swamp owls.

 


Great Horned Owl
Bubo virginianus

Call: Deep hoots: hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo
Height: 18-25 inches

Great horned owls are the largest species in Florida and can eat prey items as large as skunks. Leave large, bare branches or snags to encourage nest sites. These roosts will also serve as lookout posts for these perch and pounce predators.


 


Building a nest box and placing it between 10-30 feet off the ground will invite these pint-sized predators to your garden.

 

Photo credits: Ccreech owl photo by Milo Anderson; Great horned owl photo ©iStockphoto.com/JillLang; All other photos for this article by Kenny Coogan.

 

A version of this article appeared in print in Florida Gardening, Volume XX Issue V.

 

 


Kenny Coogan, CPBT-KA, is a regular pet and garden columnist and has authored an ecological themed children’s book, A Tenrec Named Trey (And Other Odd Lettered Animals That Like To Play). He has a B.S. in animal behavior and is a certified bird trainer through the International Avian Trainers Certification Board. Please search “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook to learn more.