Little Owls in the gully
Graham R. Cooper
Graham R. Cooper’s personal journal about modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gully.
In my last post I told you how in my imagination I’d conjured up an image of farmer Archibald – a hundred and eight years ago that would be – sitting on the verandah of his recently built farm house and gazing out across the river flats.
When we first looked at the place, I didn’t have to imagine an owl on the verandah: there was one. A Little Owl perched – in the middle of a swelteringly hot summer’s day – on the back of an old couch. Asleep. We didn’t stay on the verandah side of the house for long and the owl slept on. I can’t recall whether it was still there when we left an hour or so later.
That was twenty-eight years ago; it was the closest June and I ‘had’ ever been to a Little Owl. It was the closest we ‘have’ ever been to one!
Home, home on the range
‘Ownership’ sounds wrong when you’re talking about creatures other than humans. But that owl, and presumably its mate, had put our house at the centre of its home range. Its home, its nest, was in the gable which is above the southern side of what is now our bedroom. An end of a weatherboard at a bottom corner of the gable had rotted and a hole had formed that was just big enough to fit all 21 to 23 cm in length of an adult Little Owl. They’re rotund little bundles.
When we moved into the place in mid-March of 1992, the owl had gone and the nest was empty. Not long afterwards, I blocked off the hole: a temporary fix. We’ve never seen one near the house since.
… and an owl in a fir tree
Things happen to confound us! Sunday morning, the day before this post was published, June opened the French door curtains and gazed out across the verandah. “There’s an owl in the fir tree just above one of the firewood bins!” Sure enough, and only a few metres out from the verandah. We both got to see it through the binoculars. I pressed my smartphone to the window pane and went to the maximum zoom in of x8. But no, it disappeared behind the foliage and all we saw after that was the movement of the branches. Rich pickings of insects and other invertebrates round there; the hens spend a lot of time in the area.
The Little Owls live in the shallow gully that you can get to from the house in a few strides. You can walk the length of the row of willows at its base in under a minute.
The owls nest in hollows in the willow trunks. We rarely see them – despite the fact that they are sometimes out and about during the day – and their calls are few and far between.
Over the last fourteen days I’ve kept a record of when and how often they have been heard.
- Sat. 14th March, 5.25 pm – 2 owls calling (presumably to each other)
- Sun. 15th March, 10.30 am – 1 owl calling
- Mon. 16th March, 11.45 am – 2 owls calling
- Tues. 17th March – we were in Timaru all day (heard nothing before or after)
- Wed. 18th to Sun. 22nd March – no calls heard
- Mon. 23rd March, 12.15 pm – 1 owl calling
- Tues. 24th March – no calls heard
June’s voice interrupts my thoughts: “One owl in the lower gully at 11.55.” It’s Wednesday morning and, yet again, an owl has been heard but not seen.
- Wed. 25th March, 11.55 am (1 owl as noted above)
- Wed. 25th March, 5.15 pm – 2 owls calling
- Thurs. 26th March, 8.45 am – 1 owl calling
- Thurs. 26th March, 6.00 pm – 2 owls calling
- Fri. 27th March, 7.50 pm – 2 owls calling
- Sat. 28th March – no calls heard
- Sun. 29th March – no calls heard, but 1 owl seen! (see above)
Over the course of our years living here, I guess, on average, we hear them two to three times a week. As for seeing an owl, that’s much rarer. We’re most likely to see one in spring, perched in the crook of a branch mid-way up an old willow tree. Usually it’ll be a fledgling, looking a bit like a fluffy ball as the light catches its feathers. We can get a good bead on them with the binoculars, but they fly away before we can get close enough to photograph them. If I ever got myself a camera with a powerful zoom lens, that would be one of the first photos I’d take.
… and an owl in a willow tree
Those of you who have your own photos of Little Owls won’t need a stock image like the one above. For the rest of you, here’s another one I found. I like it partly because it’s a Canterbury location and taken of an owl in a willow much like one of our trees.
A cluster (not of the Covid-19 – trending now – viral kind, thank goodness), of objects depicting owls has started to form in the room where I write about Little Owl Gully. It started with an owl carved in wood perched on top of a wooden pen. The most recent acquisition was a coffee mug with a stylised black owl on a white glaze background.
I call the room where I write ‘my study’. It sounds a little pretentious. Again, What’s in a name? as I said in my last post. Quite a lot, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view!
The home office
I did wonder whether I should rename the room. The business and professional types all seem to have a room at home that they call ‘the office’. Real estate agents love to make a selling point of ‘the home office’ – have one of those and you’re already halfway to being a ‘success story’. That rules me out right there!
My son and my niece sent me pictures on Viber of the home offices they had set up in response to the need to work from home during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Niece Amelia’s home office looks like this:
My home office looks like this:
I decided in the end to stick with ‘my study’. It has a history: all my memories of the room cluster around that name. It’s what I’ve always called it. You just don’t want to change some things.
‘The Shack’ is a good name for somewhere to go to write. A writer friend who lives nearby calls his hut: ‘The Shack’. You could say that he’s shacked up in his cabin to do some writing. If you’ve ‘shacked up’ with someone, become lovers, we can hope that it’s the start of a beautiful relationship. Nice to think that if you’re shacked up with your muse that some beautiful writing will be borne out of the relationship.
I was saying that things, like the growing number of owl objects in my room, have a tendency to cluster. A few months ago I read that Aldo Leopold called the cabin where he wrote, ‘The Shack’. Just knowing that the nature writer and pioneer of the conservation movement called his cabin that, gives me warm fuzzies. His seminal work, A Sand County Almanac, is a must read for anyone at all interested in the natural world and the outdoors in general. In my ideal world, it would be a book of interest to us all.
June has a shack of sorts: a stand-alone craft studio a little distance from the house. When we had the felting business, she’d often spend long hours up there.
“On the owl’s back I do fly”
From the studio you get good views of the willows at the upper end of the gully. It’s those willows that the owls nest in. Occasionally she would see them flying past the studio.
A Little Owl’s wing beat has similarities to that of a moth. Like a moth, it flies in a bouncy, undulating manner that to the observer (but, of course, not to the owl), can seem a little uncertain and erratic.
The shingle road we live on has very wide grass verges. Driving along it at night, we’ve occasionally disturbed an owl hunting amongst the verges’ long grasses. We’d catch a glimpse, in the greyish light cast sideways by the headlights, of a ghost-pale moth-bird. Surely it had to be an owl: it’s the only bird round here that flies like a moth.
Can you stomach this?
Last spring I saw a fledgling, in the blink of an eye, plummet straight down like a round stone from its perch in the crook of a willow branch. Presumably it had spotted some tasty treat moving about on the ground directly below its perch.
For years I had assumed that mice were a staple of their diet. They do eat rodents, but most of their food consists of insects and other invertebrates such as earwigs, beetles, moths, spiders, caterpillars and earthworms.
An article by R.B Sibson in the 1970s periodical, New Zealand’s Nature Heritage, cites an enquiry into the diet of the Little Owl initiated by one Professor B.J.Marples in 1940.
After examining the stomachs of more than 240 specimens, his findings were that their main foods were invertebrates, caterpillars, beetles, earwigs, and spiders. The remains of only 17 birds were found, of which 16 were aliens [introduced birds] and one may have been a fantail. Similarly, of 82 birds identified from pellets, 80 were aliens; one was a silvereye and one perhaps a pipit.
(R.B. Sibson taught classics at Kings College, Auckland. He co-authored A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand.)
I wonder how they got their hands on 240 Little Owl stomachs? To those of you of a squeamish disposition – don’t go there!
A wise old owl?
The aforementioned Mr Sibson couldn’t help himself, being a classical scholar and all that:
In ancient Athens, the Little Owl (Athene noctua) was associated with Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom, and its likeness appeared on the Athenian coinage. Thus man and the Little Owl have been on familiar terms for more than 2,500 years.
… they are to be admired for the skilful way in which they responded to the demands of an alien environment. They may hunt by day and they enjoy basking in the sun. Perhaps the ancient Greeks were right in linking them with the goddess of wisdom.
The self-isolation imposed by the lockdown in New Zealand and much of the rest of the world in response to the Covid-19 pandemic puts all 7.8 billion of us in an “alien environment.” I can only hope that our somewhat isolated, self-reliant way of life means that June and I can respond “to the demands of [this] alien environment in a skilful way.” I guess that will determine whether I am seen as a wise old owl, a bit of a hoot or just living a way of life that means I don’t give two hoots about other people. It’s beginning to sound like multi-choice: A or B or C or All of the above or None of the above.
“There I couch when owls do cry”
You’ll be thinking, well he hasn’t told us whether the gully owls hoot or twit-ter-woo. You do know that they must screech because that’s one of their names. In fact, many of you will have little owls nearby and will have heard them for yourselves.
Incidentally, did you know that you can rotate the twitter bird logo 90 degrees to form the silhouette of an owl. All you need to do then is add the letters W,O and O to make its eyes and beak. Talk about clusters – I want one of those owls!
So, as most of you already know, they don’t twit-ter-woo or hoot. It’d be easier to describe the sound they make if they did. The screech they emit is a very clear, high-pitched ‘kieww’. One ornithologist wrote that during the breeding season it’s more like a cat’s ‘miaow’. They also have an alarm cry but I’m not even going to attempt to suggest what that sounds like. Round here you get so many alarm cries going off from the multitude of black birds that inhabit the place that it’s pretty much impossible to separate out the owl’s cry of alarm.
I’m all in a twitter
All that writing about clusters – so much on my mind because of the dreaded Covid-19 clusters of cases – makes me want three more objects to add to my study’s owl collection: a poster of our Little Owl Gully signpost, another of the owl icon below, and a *T-shirt with an upbeat twitter owl on it.
Last night I checked out the latest update on Covid-19 from Saudi Arabia. I did so because our pregnant daughter, son-in-law, and their two young boys live in Jeddah. We were reassured by the measures being taken by the Saudi government and local authorities. One snippet in particular was made all the more fascinating and poignant because it issued out off Jeddah. Mohammed Alsherebi, writing for euronews.com, wrote that:
“Jeddah-based Arab News, the largest English language newspaper in the region, has modified its logo on Twitter to be partially covered by a facemask.”
I now want to add a Twitter logo partially covered with a facemask to my study’s owl collection. It’s got a facemask on so I’m going to use poetic licence and imagine a little owl’s face under there somewhere. A memento to the times we are all now living in overlaid with a very personal note.
That’s it from me until next Monday. Thanks for your interest in what I’ve had to say. Bye for now.
*You can buy the Twitter Owl Tees: go to www.threadless.com/design. No this is not an affiliate link or whatever they call them. Just happened to come across it – more clustering! I’m size medium.