AUSTIN (KXAN) — Here’s the Central Texas bird forecast for the month, courtesy of Travis Audubon. Learn more about Central Texas birds and bird-related events for all ages at travisaudubon.org or by calling (512) 300-BIRD. Follow us on Facebook.
A number of western species turned up in Austin during October. Possibly due to the prolonged drought even further west, these birds are searching for more plentiful food sources to get them through the winter. One very cooperative bird called a Sage Thrasher (sometimes mistaken for a Northern Mockingbird) hung around Commons Ford Ranch Metro Park for several days in late October. Check Travis County eBird, the citizen science database of sightings, to see what surprises show up in November.
Whoo lives in your neighborhood?
Austin is home to three common owl species — Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl. Owls intrigue people for many reasons: they have large forward-facing eyes like humans, are active at night unlike most birds, have silent flight, and can turn their heads 270 degrees. They have excellent hearing, amplified by their facial discs which direct sound waves to their ears (hidden by feathers.) Owls also have distinctive calls which announce their presence and allow us to easily identify them.
The Great Horned Owl is our largest owl, at 22 inches in height. It has golden eyes and ear tufts on the sides of its round head. (Ear tufts on many owl species are thought to help in camouflage.) This bulky brown owl with a white throat is mainly nocturnal but can fly and hunt in daylight. It often perches on roofs at dusk and hoots its characteristic “hoo hoo hoo hoo hoo.” Early morning just before daybreak is another good time to listen for them.
Fall is the time of year to listen for the male and female duetting, a call and response that strengthens their pair bond, and helps maintain their year-round territory. Listen carefully for the deeper, richer and more mellow call of the male and the higher call of the female. Interestingly the female is the larger of the pair, which is true for many raptors. Why? Egg laying, incubation and raising of young require a lot of energy. In fact it’s common for individual Great Horned females to skip breeding every third year due to the toll it takes on their bodies.
Great Horned Owls have a huge range across North America, only avoiding the high Arctic, and are found in a variety of habitats from woodlands to suburban landscapes and even the desert. They occur all around Austin from the cliffs above Lady Bird Lake below the Tom Miller Dam to wooded neighborhood greenbelts. They don’t build their own nests. Instead they use old crow and hawk nests, broken-off cavities in trees, and even nest on the ground and on cliff faces. At least one Great Horned Owl nested on a second-story balcony in Austin, in an empty flower pot! Athena, at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, has nested almost annually on the arch over the entrance to the courtyard.
The Great Horned Owl is a formidable predator that will eat an amazing variety of prey. It hunts from a perch, swooping down to catch rabbits, rodents, birds as big as themselves, house cats and skunks. It also eats much smaller items like insects and frogs, walking along the ground to get around obstacles. During the breeding season, the male catches prey and brings it back to the female who tears it up to feed to the nestlings.
When does nesting start? In Austin, it is not unheard of for Great Horned Owls to be on eggs in late December, January or February. A couple of factors may drive this early nesting: foraging success is higher since there is less leaf cover, making prey more visible, and prey abundance may be higher. This helps insure the resulting owlets get a well-nourished start on life, and more time to learn hunting skills. What happens to young owls? They are driven from the parents’ territory in the fall, and try to establish territories elsewhere. Often they are “floaters” waiting on the fringes for a territory to open up.
The two other common Austin owls are the Eastern Screech-Owl and the Barred Owl. Listen for the Screech-Owl’s descending whinny like a small horse, and its tremolo call all on one pitch. Sometimes it may sound like an ambulance siren in the distance. This small gray or reddish owl about eight inches tall has yellow eyes. It likes treed cover with open understory where it can watch for prey and then pounce on it. Like the Great Horned Owl, it has a wide variety of items on the menu including birds, mice, rats, insects, frogs and earthworms. Eastern Screech-Owls readily use nest boxes if squirrels don’t claim them first.
The Barred Owl is most frequently found along waterways like Shoal Creek and the Colorado River. It’s slightly smaller than the Great Horned Owl, has dark eyes, and a rounded head with no ear tufts. Barred Owls often call during the day, so get to know their “who cooks for you, who cooks for you allll” call.
A good way to find owls is to let other birds find them for you. In a behavior called “mobbing,” birds that discover a roosting owl in the daytime will start fussing and scolding until more birds are drawn in to gang up on it, often causing it to fly away. Whenever you hear a racket like this, check to see what predator is causing the commotion. In addition to owls other predator possibilities around Austin include fox, housecat, bobcat, snake, hawk and raccoon.
It’s a bird-eat-bird world out there and that is true for owls. Great Horned Owls will prey on both Barred and Screech-Owls and Barred will prey on Screech. Fortunately all three manage to share the habitats that Austin provides. Henry David Thoreau said “I rejoice that there are owls,” and many people agree.
Upcoming Travis Audubon events
Check the events calendar for upcoming events, field trips and classes. Most field trips are free and require reservations. Classes are fee-based.
Compiled by Jane Tillman, Travis Audubon volunteer