Ollie, a Garden Surprise
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A Garden Surprise When Ollie Appears

Protesting Owl Stops Fall Pruning

Autumn is the time of year when we put our gardens to rest for the upcoming winter. Pruning is one of the major tasks, and this year I tackled pruning a decade of honeysuckle growth on one of our arbors. The word dense doesn’t even begin to describe what a four-foot-thick mat of vines is like. I was fifteen feet up the ladder, tied to the arbor frame with climbing ropes and a harness, using hand shears to trim off layers of vines, like shearing wool off a sheep. As I descended to retrieve a heavy-duty cutter, I did a double-take to my left and found myself staring at Ollie, who watched my progress from about five feet away.

I’m not a bird watcher, so I took a picture and hopped online, taking my best shot at identifying Ollie — a 10-inch Western Screech Owl, to the best of my knowledge. His housing preferences fit the situation, with one of the Screech Owl’s acceptable abodes being tangled vine bundles. I presume he had stepped out his front door to see what all the racket was about.

He didn’t budge when I closed in for a picture, and he seemed unruffled as I pulled down a four-foot cube of vines from the far end of the arbor. I suspected he was giving me an owl equivalent of the “stink eye,” daring me to infringe on the jungle of vines covering the northeast corner of the arbor.

Garden Guests and Pests

Ollie effectively shut down the job while I did a mini environmental assessment. Our gardens are large enough to attract a variety of wildlife, most of which I can categorize as either guests or pests. Skunks, mice, raccoons, and garden rats all fall in the pest category. Birds, garter snakes, frogs, lizards, fish, dragonflies, and bees are all welcome guests. Squirrels are welcome until more than two show up, and then they get lovely new homes about 3 miles away from my house and across a river. As far as I know, they can’t build tiny boats to return.

Ollie fell into the welcome guest category despite his inclination to eat some of our smaller avian guests. Besides being a quiet and beautiful little creature, he (or she) has the redeeming quality of enjoying the odd mouse or rat for dinner. This diet places Ollie high on the guest list.

I haven’t returned to the pruning, but Ollie is a keeper, and I will have to leave the arbor’s northeast corner intact like a huge, green, honeysuckle fluff ball hovering above the back of our frog pond. I am also sure he is not above eating the occasional frog, but we can’t have everything.

Western Screech Owl

Until today I was only aware of Barn Owls, Snowy Owls, Great Horned Owls, and a category called “all other owls.” As I said, I am not much of an ornithologist, so discovering our own garden Screech Owl was quite the treat. I first thought Ollie was a young owl and not fully grown, but it seems 10 inches is an average height.

I do most of my gardening during the daylight hours, which is probably why I was perviously oblivious to Ollie. Screech Owls are nocturnal creatures and generally hide during the day to avoid being eaten by larger birds of prey. Also, they are quite well camouflaged and probably not readily apparent even when partially visible. When they are most active, my only garden activity is sitting in the hot tub and kicking back with a cold IPA. I’m not at my most observant then and often pondering the stars as opposed to the dim outlines of the arbors.

Evidently, Screech Owls are fond of backyard bird boxes, so our honeysuckle arbor may be considered second-rate accommodations. But I’m still hopeful Ollie with continue hanging around. When he eats dinner, he helps me out. You’ve got to like that!

Let me know if I’m a complete bird idiot and have been rambling on about Screech Owls when Ollie is actually something else. Regardless, it’s cool to have an owl as a garden guest.

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Western Screech-Owl (Source: The Cornell Lan — All About Birds) 

Western Screech-Owl — Megascops kennicottii (Source: Audubon) 

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.