Nesting Barn Owls!
- Barn Owls Nesting in New York City (1909-1910)
By HOWARD H. CLEAVES, Staten Island. N. Y.
With photographs by the author
A western reader of Bird-Lore, who does not know exactly what territory New York City embraces, might think it impossible, or at least improbable, that a pair of Barn Owls could be found nesting within the limits of the great metropolis. He might be equally surprised to learn that a Wood Duck reared a brood there not more than four seasons ago, and that Woodcock still nest there in considerable numbers. His amazement might be almost as great if he were told that Barred Owls, Red-shouldered Hawks, Killdeers, Blue-winged Warblers and Hummingbirds also find it congenial to build their nests there. But this delightful state of affairs could easily be made clear by explaining that semi-rural Staten Island is a part of the City of New York.
Had it not been for Mr. William T. Davis, our only pair of Barn Owls on Staten Island might have passed unnoticed, officially. He had known a farmer on the southern shore of the island for many years, and used to have the man report to him when the Barn Swallows had arrived each spring. One year, Mr. Davis was told by his friend of strange sounds that had been heard near the barn at night, and, from the description, it was concluded that the noise must have been made by an Owl. Investigation proved that not only was it an Owl, but that it was a Barn Owl, and that the bird and its mate occupied an old pigeon-cote at one corner of the main barn.
At a meeting of the Staten Island Association of Arts and Sciences, held November 17, 1906, Mr. Davis read a paper on these Owls, in which he said: "On the fifteenth of last September, I climbed as silently as I could to the pigeon-loft, but the Owls heard me coming and flew to the neighboring trees. On a lower shelf from the one they occupied I found four dead mice laid in a pile, and I was told that on another occasion they had eight others arranged in the same manner. One of the four mice found on the shelf was very large for Microtus pennsylvanicus (Ord.), and while it may be that species, the authorities to whom it has been shown are not sure of its identity. It is now in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History.
"On account of their mouse-eating habits these Owls are very useful about a barn or farm; for, while the farmer is asleep, they serve him greatly in the preservation of his crops, and it has been truly said that during all of their wanderings they are aiding mankind, their only enemy.
"On the occasion of my visit, I collected a number of pellets or rejects of these Owls, and there were remains of a great many others nearby. From these pellets I have raised the Tineid moth (Trichophaga tapetzella Linn.), but I found no Trox beetles, as discovered in pellets found under trees on several previous occasions. . . . Dr. Dyar and other authorities regard this moth as rare in the United States.
"On the eleventh of November, with Mr. James Chapin and Mr. Alanson Skinner, I visited the Owls for the third time, and, while I climbed to the loft my companions stood outside and watched the hole whence the Owls would fly. As before, the Owls heard me coming, and one walked out on the perch and stood in the light, where my companions could see it well before it flew off to a neighboring tree. It was then discovered that another Owl was hiding behind one of the rafters, and on two occasions it came from its retreat and walked about so that we could examine it closely, but it seemed anxious to hide behind a beam rather than to fly out into the daylight. Its gait was nervous and jerky, and it would stand for a moment and regard us, and then hasten to get behind the beam again. It is certainly a queer-visaged bird, is the 'Monkey-faced' Owl. It is also sometimes called 'Golden Owl', for its plumage is very beautiful."
It was through the kindness and influence of Mr. Davis that the writer was enabled to secure the photographs accompanying this article. My several experiences with this pair of Monkey-faced Owls were, with perhaps one exception, most enjoyable; and that exception was the fault, not of the Owls, but of an ignorant farm hand. I had taken Mr. Clinton G. Abbott to the barn, and both of us, equipped with Graflex cameras, hoped to photograph the old Owl as she flew from the pigeon-loft. But I had learned from previous experiences that someone was obliged to climb the ladder inside the cote in order to start the bird from her nest or from her roosting place. We looked about for a suitable third party to perform this necessary duty, but, contrary to the general rule, no inquisitive small boy was to be seen, and it was with reluctance that we approached one of the farmer's employees. We explained, with as little detail as possible, that, when we had scaled the outside wall of the main barn and reached the upper eaves with our cameras, he, at a signal from us was to slowly ascend the wooden ladder which leads to the top of the pigeon-cote.
We removed our shoes, strapped our cameras to our backs, and soon were perched in our lofty station, ready for action. The signal was given, our man disappeared through one of the doors which opens into the barn from the cow-yard, and presently we could hear him making his way up the ladder. It was a monument of great expectation and intense inward excitement. The hoods of our cameras were pressed hard against our faces, and the focus was kept sharp on the uppermost hole of the loft, for it was through this opening I had learned that the bird usually came. Suddenly there was a shuffling sound at the top of the cote, a white form pulled its way through the pigeon-hole, and a magnificent creature sprang out into space and winged silently away to seek the shelter of some trees on the opposite side of the road. But, with the first wing-stroke of the bird, there had sounded the "reports" of two focal-plane shutters, and, as we relaxed and shifted plates, our words of congratulation were mutual.
At just this moment, however, there began a commotion in the pigeon loft that immediately changed our smiles to scowls of apprehension. First there was a scuffling and scratching, intermingled with some inaudible mutterings from the farm-hand, and then there began a series of pitiful, wailing cries which one could easily have believed were issuing from a human throat, but which we knew to be coming from that of a terrified Barn Owl. The situation was as plain as it was painful. The bird that we had just photographed was the male, who had been perching; somewhere in the loft and had left at the sound of footsteps on the ladder. The female had remained at her post (which happened to be a nest containing eight eggs), where she had been discovered and captured by our "assistant." The bird's screams of distress suggested that the captor might be either choking her to death or wringing her neck.
"What's the trouble?" cried Abbott.
"Oi've got an owooll" shouted the Irishman.
"Let her go!" commanded Abbott.
"She's too valuable" came from the recesses of the loft.
"Don't hurt her, I tell you," we both called in chorus.
"Oi can get $5.00 for her" returned the villain from within.
"You can't get a cent for her" Abbott explained;" it's against the law to kill her. She's worth more alive than dead, and we'll make it worth your while to let her go."
But the only answer was another series of sickening outcries from the poor bird, so Abbott, who was nearest the end of the eaves, left his camera and made a rapid descent, to have, if necessary, a rather forcible interview with the man in the coop. Fortunately, for the Owl, the Irishman, on discovering that we were angry at his holding the bird captive, had not injured her in the least; and, when confronted by Abbott in person, he surrendered the prize.
We then talked to the man as pleasantly as possible under the circumstances, and explained that the Owls caught more rats and mice about the farm than a dozen cats. We did not forget, however, that it is wise occasionally to base one's reasoning on the fact that money, in such cases, speaks louder than words. A substantial "tip" was pressed into our friend's palm, as he was instructed to have an eye to the welfare of the Owls and, as we bade him farewell and hinted that we would return in a week or two, he smiled and said, "Lave it to me. There'll be nobody touchin' 'em if I know about it!"
Much to my relief, the subsequent visit proved that, although a few of the eggs had met with disaster, the rest had hatched and the young were in good condition. On this occasion I was accompanied by Mr. Davis, and, with his assistance, succeeded in again photographing the old Owl as she flew from the cote. Her mate was absent.
The Owlets were, at that stage in their development, about as ill-proportioned and unsightly as anything in the bird world. One of them we photographed. His feathers were still in the sheaths, his feet were large and ungainly, and his head was so big and heavy that it could only be swung slowly from side to side, much after the manner in which an elephant swings his trunk. While he was being handled and photographed, he was heard to give forth two or three different sounds, the one most frequently uttered being a plaintive chi-lc-lc-le, chi-le-ie-le, chi-le-le-le, repeated very rapidly.
It was discovered that, during the winter months, the Owls were not to be found at the barn. They evidently migrated each year in November, and, did not return until sometime in March. But the Owls did not return with the spring of 1910. All that could be found to indicate that the loft had ever been tenanted by them were a few decaying pellets; while it was learned that, for the first time in years, a part of the coop had been reclaimed by Pigeons. We can only entertain the hope that another spring will mark the return to the farm of these birds of mystery.
Bird Lore 12(5): 225-230 (September-October 1910)