The Owl House

Last summer I hatched a plan to invite screech owls into the yard.

I’m not certain where my current longing for screech owls started. Probably on social media, where many of my middle-age longings start. Perhaps an outbreak of screech owl photos infected my scroll. Or maybe I succumbed to nostalgia. Again.

This is a winter view of my childhood home in Tennessee, dated 1983, as seen from the top of our terraced pasture. Everything looks barren, dilapidated, and somber in this photo. All of the grasses are yellow and brown. The barn’s tin roof is mostly gone, leaving only tall rafters and a single row of rusting tin at the eave. The pole shed visibly leans and its rusting tin roof is peeling back. The yard’s maples have lost their leaves, as have all of the trees in the beaver-made swamp across the road. A thin trail of smoke shows that it was cold enough for the wood-burning stove (our only source of heat) to be lit.
This is a photo of me at some pre-adolescent age of maximum awkwardness, complete with knobby knees, ill-fitting shorts and halter top, and a bad haircut. (All of my ages were/are maximally awkward, complete with knobby knees, ill-fitting clothes, and poorly planned hair.) Here, I’m in our Tennessee yard, posing with a half-grown calico cat for one of my oldest sister’s “Rae with pets” series of photos.

In my childhood home, air conditioning existed but was rarely used. Mother considered our two window units massively luxurious wastes of electricity and only turned them on for company. So all through the long, hot, humid Tennessee summers, I treasured the open window beside my bed.

This is the only image I could find of my bedroom window. The photo shows one end of our gray wood-sided house, but the main visual impact is a heap of splintered branches blown down by an Easter morning tornado in the mid-1980s. The yard is green and slightly overgrown. There are two white-trimmed windows, one (mine) mostly obscured by the downed branches.

My childhood window, open more often than not, let me hear summer in a way I never hear it anymore. Katydids were my favorite singers, but frogs, whippoorwills, and owls made special appearances during their individual busiest weeks of summer.

In the early spring, peeper frogs spawned in the beaver swamp across the road and in the leaky crater that our father had thought would become a pond, when he dug it. (It was a pond after rain, but the ground was too porous for it to be a permanent pond. Most of the year it was a muddy basin cut into the hill above our garden. The rest of the year it was either a shallow pond or a dry pan of cracked red clay.) Later into spring, bullfrogs took over. During the hottest part of summer, whippoorwills called in the field outside my window. In the late summer and fall, barred owls echoed in the woods all around. And through it all, during the whole long length of summer nights too hot for sleep, screech owls hunted the woods and fields and massive maple trees around our house.

This photo shows the view from our back yard. The large maples and overgrown field were nesting, grazing, and hunting grounds for untold numbers of birds and other wildlife. All of this was just outside my childhood window as I lay awake listening to summer each night. In this daytime photo, laundry is on the line, four spoiled goats are approaching the camera, and a trio of white geese are parading through the background. The disheveled pile of old lumber to the right is the remnants of our well-house roof, which was in the process of being replaced.

I’ve never seen or heard a screech owl in Virginia. I know they live here, unheard and unseen in our busy suburb. Most summers, I’m content simply knowing they’re here and don’t need sensory proof of their presence. But last summer I couldn’t shake my longing to hear, maybe to see, my screech owl companions from childhood. So I built a screech owl house.

After browsing the internet, I settled on building plans from Audubon and began shopping for wood. With no access to affordable cedar in a 10″ cut, I settled for untreated pine, which then wanted paint. A few days later, The Owl House was complete. (If you are intrigued enough to look at the plans, you’ll note that I decided not to use hinges on the roof, opting instead to attach the roof with a few screws that can be easily removed when the house needs cleaning. I also added an extra water barrier over the angled rear roof joint, because I couldn’t fit the angle well enough to prevent leaks.)

Photo of The Owl House, which is essentially a wooden box about 10 inches square and 16 inches deep with a slightly sloped roof, a three-inch-diameter entry hole cut near the top in the front, and some quarter-inch ventilation holes. I painted the outside surfaces white with layered leaf impressions in varying shades of blue, tan, and green. The inside surfaces are unpainted, unsanded wood.

We waited until November to hang The Owl House, hoping that the wood rats and squirrels would have settled into other winter nests. We chose a spot about eleven feet off the ground in the back yard’s large pear tree, nestled between three major branches. For the first few weeks I kept careful watch, as if I expected screech owls to materialize, after decades of invisibility, simply because I invited them. After the first weeks, I watched less frequently. So when a January storm destroyed a squirrel’s nest in the front yard, I didn’t notice until much later that the squirrel had relocated into The Owl House.

Photo of an adult gray squirrel peering out of The Owl House.

With only slight screech owl dismay, I named the squirrel Owl and adjusted my expectations. I also adjusted the bird seed mixture to include more of her favorites: shelled and whole peanuts. (I was already buying these for the crows and blue jays.) I soon grew fond of the squirrel’s watchful attention as I filled bird feeders, put out fresh suet and water, and took care of the yard’s limited winter needs.

Photo of a mature gray squirrel peering over the edge of The Owl House’s entry hole.

When we first moved into our home, in 2001, the neighborhood had more rabbits than squirrels. Far more rabbits, to the extent that we rarely saw squirrels at all. But the squirrel-to-rabbit ratio has steadily changed, over the years, and now we have an abundance of squirrels and very few rabbits. While both of these small mammal neighbors are welcome in the yard, I must admit that, after years of watching rabbits, I find the squirrels’ chronic haste a touch overwhelming.

Photo of a gray squirrel sprawled in a pot of newly sprouted milkweed. I start my late summer milkweed in pots because the squirrels dig up and scatter fragile sprouts, whenever I plant directly into the pollinator bed later than spring. Here, one of the squirrels was taking a break from a vigorous (and milkweed crushing) roll in the pot’s cool, damp dirt.

Marie and Duchess find the squirrels’ antics entertaining (if stalking and chattering under their breath can be taken as signs of entertainment, in cat language).

Photo of our cats, Marie and Duchess, watching through the kitchen window as a gray squirrel climbs down the window’s screen. The yard outside is brightly lit by sunshine; the pollinator beds are overflowing with milkweed, fennel, and flowers; and the dragonfly pond has a single water lily bloom.

All winter long, I enjoyed Owl’s active presence in the yard. Then, for a few weeks in March, Owl disappeared. She stopped peering out of The Owl House when I was in the yard, stopped edging down the tree to see if I had added peanuts to the feeder, stopped chasing other squirrels out of the tree. The Owl House was, as far as I could tell without wrestling the ladder over and climbing up to check, abandoned.

Early in April, Owl returned. Thinner and hungrier, but active as ever.

Photo of a gray squirrel poised at the roots of the pear tree. This is Owl, though in real time I identify her more through behavior than her markings, which are the standard gray, brown, and white markings of your average gray squirrel.
Photo of a gray squirrel (Owl herself) in The Owl House’s entry hole. Her head and shoulders are fully out, her right front foot is grasping the edge of the entry hole, and her left front foot is braced against the facing board of The Owl House.

And on April 13, there was extra movement in The Owl House.

Photo of two squirrel kittens peering just over the edge of the entry hole to The Owl House. Both are barely in view, just a foot, nose, and eye for the kitten on the left and a foot and ear for the kitten on the right.
Photo of a squirrel kitten peering out of The Owl House. Its nose and eyes are in view, along with a few toes and the very tip of its tail.

The kittens seemed almost as curious about me as I was about them and popped up to look every time they heard me outside. They became increasingly active, and, while I never caught a photo or video of the action, I could see swirls of activity in The Owl House as the kittens zoomied around inside and fell past the entry hole in wrestling-worthy stunts.

Photo of two squirrel kittens looking out of The Owl House. The kittens are jostling for space, and one has a foot hooked over the other’s nose, attempting to shove it aside.
Photo of two squirrel kittens competing for space in the entry hole of The Owl House. One kitten is head-and shoulders out of the entry hole, front feet clutching the edge for leverage as the other kitten pushes from the side. All that is visible of the second kitten is its nose, mouth, and chin.
Photo of a squirrel kitten with its chin resting on the lip of The Owl House’s entry hole, while a second kitten climbs past overhead. All that is visible of the second kitten is the underside of its chest and a portion of one paw.
Photo of two squirrel kittens competing for space as they watch from The Owl House. Both are somewhat sideways in the entry hole, one looking out from the right side and the second trying to gain more room by locking a paw over the lip of the entry hole.

The kittens looked mature enough to be leaving the box and exploring their world. But they stayed. For days after I imagined they would leave, they lingered. Sometimes just noses in view, sometimes faces and heads. Usually two kittens at a time, but sometimes three.

Photo of two squirrel kittens peering out from The Owl House. A third kitten’s nose is in view.

I don’t know how many kittens there were, in all. I believe only three, but they were so active that four or five kittens might have been taking turns at the entry hole of their increasingly too-small nest box. To borrow a human reference of expression, they often looked bored.

Photo of two squirrel kittens resting against each other as they gaze out of The Owl House. If I saw two children with these expressions and body language, I would guess that they were bored.
Photo of a squirrel kitten gnawing at the lip of the entry hole to The Owl House. Again, if I saw a child staring off into space with a similar expression as they nibbled on something, I would guess they were bored. And probably tired.
Side view photo, through a gap in the pear tree’s leaves, of two squirrel kittens looking out of The Owl House. I wish that I had words to describe their expressions without resorting to anthropomorphism. As it is, I’m left with saying they look a bit bored, a bit tired, and a bit wistful. They were ready to leave the nest.

Owl stayed very close, most of the time. If I went into the yard looking for her, I usually found her either in the box with her kittens or sleeping on a nearby branch.

In this photo, Owl is stretched out on a limb, belly down, with her chin resting on her front paws.
In this photo, taken through a thin curtain of leaves, Owl is stretched out on a branch, belly down. She was asleep (or at least had her eyes closed) as I tried to convince the camera to focus through the leaves, but she roused at the sound of my shutter.
In this photo, Owl had been sleeping with her forelegs draped to either side of a smaller branch well above The Owl House. As usual, she roused when she heard my camera shutter.

Sometimes she climbed over and around The Owl House, when she saw me photographing the kittens. Again resorting to anthropomorphism, she seemed anxious about all the attention, and maybe a touch pleased to show them off to me.

In this photo, Owl is looking at the camera from over the top of The Owl House, and one of the kittens is peeking out through the entry hole.
Here Owl has climbed down one of the large limbs beside The Owl House while one of her kittens looks out from the entry hole.
In this view from the side of The Owl House, Owl is perched behind the nestbox while one of her kittens looks out from the entry hole.

As The Owl House was designed and mounted with screech owls in mind, it wasn’t ideal for the active coming and going of squirrel kittens. With no perch within kitten-reach of the entry hole, the kittens couldn’t exit without a perilous scramble, a prodigious leap, or a blind drop. While I’m certain the kittens were capable of scrambling, leaping, and dropping, as they had been doing all of the above in the confines of the box, they fidgeted at the brink for hours at a time.

Here, one of the kittens leans out of the entry hole to look down and around while a second kitten clambers over its littermate’s back.
In this photo, one of the kittens leans forward, shoulders and forelimbs out of The Owl House, and feels around for some purchase on the front of the nestbox.
Here, one of the kittens leans far out of The Owl House, front foot extended, as it watches Owl climb through the branches in front of and below The Owl House.

On their last evening in The Owl House, the kittens mimicked holding food in their forepaws as they watched Owl eat peanuts.

In this photo, a squirrel kitten leans out of The Owl House and goes through the motions of holding food in its forepaws and chewing as it watches Owl eat peanuts.
In this photo, a squirrel kitten leans out of The Owl House, one foot curled in front of its mouth as if holding on to a tidbit of food while eating. The kittens were watching Owl eat peanuts and seeming to copy her motions.

Owl moved in and out of The Owl House by stretching or leaping across the gap between branch and entry hole, but how could the kittens learn such acrobatics without a reachable perch to practice from? I decided to intervene. (This is one of my known and admitted failings, my penchant for unnecessary rescuing. I expect that any wildlife experts reading this blog will be muttering under their breath, “Why can’t she leave them alone? If she would just leave them alone, they would work it out.”)

We decided to run a long, skinny board across two branches that were each some distance from the nestbox, securing the board at one end so that it couldn’t slip. When we were finished, the board passed, at a slight angle, a few inches below and away from the entry hole. (We intentionally chose a board that was too narrow and lightweight for a cat, or even a hawk.) Owl and the kittens observed our activity with what seemed like only mild anxiety, and we watched to make certain Owl was comfortable coming and going with the board in place. She was, and the kittens immediately began testing the board with their front feet. The light was too low for photos, by then, so I went to bed excited to see what would happen the next morning.

The next morning, they were all gone. Gone from The Owl House, gone from the tree, gone from the yard. I don’t know if this is normal behavior, when squirrel kittens achieve the squirrel equivalent of fledging. Maybe squirrel kittens always leave their nest trees and nest yards on this exact schedule. Maybe the kittens had been coming and going from The Owl House all along, when we weren’t watching, and it was simply time to explore other trees and other yards. Maybe our activity, as we added the board, was simply too much and too close for Owl and her kittens.

A day or two later, Owl was back at the feeder, dashing up the tree to her usual perch when I went out to add more peanuts. She comes twice a day now, morning and evening, scrambling always to her perch when I go to meet her with a handful of peanuts. She’s shown no interest in reclaiming The Owl House. After eating her fill, she leaves the yard by way of the neighbor’s back fence, following the entire length of the fence and disappearing into the next yard over. My hope is that she and the kittens are exploring and mapping the neighborhood as she teaches them how to forage on their own. Maybe the kittens will come with her, some day soon, when she comes for her peanuts.

Photo of Owl perched atop The Owl House as two kittens look out from the entry hole. This photo was taken well before we added the “rescue” board described above.

The story of Owl and her kittens will undoubtedly resurface as nostalgia, in future years. If the past is any guide, time will renovate and revise the story until it is as unforgettable as an open window full of katydids, frogs, and screech owls.

I feel the need to provide an “after” image, as the opening images show my childhood home in disrepair. This is the house a decade later, in 1995. The long single-story house is wood-sided, painted very pale yellow with blue trim around the windows, and has a clean new roof. In this photo there are lots of healthy trees, a freshly mown yard, and plenty of sunshine. The barn and pole shed have been torn down.

As a final note, I admit to naming the kittens, though I couldn’t even count them. They are Sarah and Percy and Bill. If you don’t know why, allow me to explain with a YouTube video:

If you see them, out and about, with or without their Owl mother, now you know their names.