Green and Growing: Give a hoot about owls

Lots of people put birdhouses in the back yard, particularly for small songbirds and bluebirds. Why not owl houses? Owls have a keen appetite for mice and other rodents, critical vectors of the disease-carrying tick population.

Who can deny the attraction of natural tick control?

And if you're among the many who think that moles ruin their lawns, here's an exciting twist: Moles tunnel to find insects, including grubs. Moles do not eat vegetation. Field mice, also called voles, occupy mole tunnels and eat grass roots.

Owls eat voles. Some owls also hunt shrews, skunks and rabbits, among other prey.

Owls, however, have a hard time in the modern world. A raptor rescue organization in Killingworth, A Place Called Hope, has housed and nursed more than 60 injured barred owls since January, according to spokesperson Vicki Silvia. The organization recently reported the death of a great horned owl due to secondary poisoning from rodenticides, an event that is unfortunately not unique.

Our region has long been home to many owl species. The barred owl, an avid nocturnal hunter of mice and skunks, is currently more populous than it has been in a while.

The diminutive saw-whet owl often overwinters here, but nests farther north. The state also hosts the short-eared owl, long-eared owl, eastern screech owl, and the great-horned owl.

The barn owl, a handsome bird once common in the Connecticut River Valley, is now endangered.

How can we help? Some owls are cavity nesters, according to Peter Picone, a wildlife biologist at Sessions Woods in Burlington, part of the Department of Environmental Protection.

"They prefer to nest in 'snags,' which is the name we use for standing dead or dying trees," Picone said. "People usually take these trees down, but snags are make-or-break habitat for some of these birds, particularly barred owls. If snags stand in a wetland or another place where they pose no danger to people, we recommend leaving them."

Some owls are willing to take up residence in nest boxes.

"Of all owl species, the eastern screech owl is probably easiest to attract to a nest box," Picone said. "They readily accept artificial cavities."

He notes that owl houses are entirely different from more simple birdhouses, and each owl species has its preferences. If you are adept in the woodshop, visit http://bit.ly/Cornell-owl-nest-boxes to download owl house patterns. Picone highly recommends "Woodworking for Wildlife" by Carrol L. Henderson, published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Picone is an author as well. His "Enhancing Your Backyard Habitat for Wildlife" is a free download published by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. He offers nest box specifications in the book.

According to Picone, another way to create owl habitat is with thickets of evergreens. Native eastern redcedar, spruce, arborvitae, and white pine provide the little saw-whet and much larger great horned owls both safety and thermal insulation during winter.

Finally, Picone said, "If you want to help owls, stop using poison to get rid of rodents."

It is also helpful to pick up fishing line and dispose of it properly.

None of these birds weighs more than two pounds individually. Most of the time, they are out of human sight and mind though nearby.

Earth month is a great time to remember that it doesn't take much to show respect for small creatures. We and they are in this together.

Kathy Connolly is a writer and speaker from Old Saybrook. Reach her through her website, SpeakingofLandscapes.com.

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