Question: We occasionally see owls sitting on the telephone poles on our street, but never at our bird feeders. Do they eat only meat? And where would an owl live in a residential area like West Los Angeles?
Answer: Owls are indeed predators rather than seed-eaters, and although their diet varies between species and location, they most commonly feed on rodents, small birds and rabbits. The great horned owl, the western screech owl and the barn owl are year-round residents of Southern California, although none are abundant.
These owls are active just before sunrise, at twilight or at night, which makes them difficult to spot, although many of us have heard their screeching or hooting in the wee hours.
The birds you've seen perching on the telephone poles are most likely great horned owls, which use their excellent vision to detect prey from a perch, then make a short flight to capture it.
This foraging style is dramatically different from that of the barn owls, which locate and capture their prey while mid-flight.
Barn owls might be found nesting in a natural cavity such as a tree hollow or in the attic of a house or building. Screech owls, which have adapted well to the suburbs, nest almost exclusively in the hollows of trees but will use a nest box.
Great horned owls are less particular about where they call home and may use a variety of convenient, dry areas to raise a family.
Here are a few tips should you decide to go "owling" in your neighborhood:
* Listen for the distinctive screech or hoot of an owl.
* Look for owls at dusk and dawn, while there's still enough light to use binoculars.
* If you suspect an owl may be roosting or nesting in a tree, search the ground underneath for pellets, which are the regurgitated, indigestible remains of an owl's meal (owls commonly swallow their prey whole). Shiny, silvery pellets are relatively fresh; dry, hardened pellets are older.
Q: My daughter, who is learning about wild animals in school, noticed that owls always seem to be looking straight forward in pictures, never to the side. Why is this?
A: What a great observation--the kind of clear thinking that only comes from a kid!
The reason owls always appear to be transfixed, as if they're staring at something smack dab in front of them, is because they are.
Owls' eyes, like the headlights in a car, are fixed in a forward position, which means they can't look to the side. To make up for this weakness, however, owls have two strong assets. Their vision is spectacular, particularly their night vision, and they have the uncanny ability to whip their necks around almost (but not quite) full circle to see all around them.
In fact, they can spin their heads around and back to center again so quickly that to the casual observer it looks as if the owl's head has spun all the way around in its socket.
Q: I'd like to attract barn owls to my backyard by putting up some nest boxes. Where may I purchase boxes?
A: Putting up nest boxes to support the barn owl population is a good idea, but be sure your neighborhood is owl friendly.
First, because there is a slight risk of secondary poisoning in owls that eat poisoned rodents or other small animals, determine that no large-scale rodent control operation is underway in your neighborhood.
Second, if your home sits under lots of low-flying airplanes, skip the nest box. Birds that inadvertently hit airplanes, particularly if they get into the engines, are a real danger to the birds and the planes. These collisions are referred to as "bird strikes" and are a huge concern at both commercial and military airports.
Last, because great horned owls are predators of barn owls, the opening of a barn owl nest box will be, by design, too small to accommodate a great horned owl. So don't expect to attract just any old owl to a barn owl nest box.
You may purchase barn owl boxes, also called "Nature Condos," from a wildlife supply company in Fresno called Wildlife Control Technology. You can reach them at (800) 235-0262, or on the Web at http://www.wildlife-control.com.
For more general information on owls, "The Book of Owls" by Lewis Wayne Walker (University of Texas Press, 1993) is a thorough yet readable resource that any owl lover should have on the bookshelf. For more specific information on the birds in your area, call the Los Angeles Audubon Society bookstore at (323) 876-0202.
Got critter conflicts? Send your queries to wildlife biologist Andrea Kitay at P.O. Box 2489, Camarillo, CA 93011, or via e-mail to email@example.com. Please include your name and city. Questions cannot be answered individually.
For a list of Wildlife Bulletins that provide sound advice on homeowner-wildlife conflicts ($4 each), send a SASE to the above address, or visit http://www.livingwithwildlife.com.