May 28, 2014 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, June 2014

The Owl in the Flicker Box

Coming home to a head peeking out of the box: a northern saw-whet owl, a species known to occupy nest boxes designed for flickers.

A few Aprils ago, I hung a nest box on the back side of our garage, in Snowmass Village, Colorado. The spot had southeastern exposure and was about 20 feet above the ground. I had hoped to attract a pair of northern flickers after enjoying their visits to my suet feeders all winter long. Instead, a house wren unloaded a boxful of sticks, and settled in.

Come fall, I cleaned out the wren's nest, leaving the wood shavings that were there in the first place. Maybe next year, I thought.

The following April, I was out running errands when my husband called my cell phone to say someone was in the box.

"A flicker?" I asked.

"No," he said. "An owl!"

"I'll be right home!" I said.

I dashed home and saw a head peeking out of the box: a northern saw-whet owl, a species known to occupy nest boxes designed for flickers. Not knowing its gender, I decided to call it Sam. I immediately contacted two of my birder friends to share my exciting news and learned that a saw-whet owl in a box in April would likely be a female. Sam became Samantha.

Nocturnal as they are, Samantha would pop her head out during the day at every new sound near the house, on full alert. I'd speak to her, and she became tolerant of me, apparently recognizing my voice and watching me for a while before closing her eyes and soaking up some sun. After a few minutes, she'd retreat back into the box.

Her presence required a furniture rearrangement in the guest bedroom, from which we had a perfect view of the box. With the spotting scope set up at the window, we checked several times a day to monitor activity.

One evening, we set up a small table for dinner in the guest bedroom, hoping to try and catch a glimpse of owl activity at dusk. About fifteen minutes after sunset, Samantha appeared at the hole and looked out and around for about five minutes. Then she flew out of the box, returning about 10 minutes later. A few minutes later, her mate (now called Sam) would fly in, a morsel in his beak, and perch at the hole long enough to deliver the goods. What amazing dinner company!

Sometimes we heard their calls in the evening.

It was agony not knowing whether she had eggs, or how many there might be, or when they would hatch. Various books and the Internet provided good information regarding incubation times and such, but without knowing when or if she laid eggs, we remained clueless. Days turned into weeks.

Then, on June 12, in broad daylight, a face appeared at the hole that was not Samantha's. Our first owlet! A curious fellow, he appeared often during his first few days observing, eyeing his new world—and me. About two days later, another new face appeared, with noticeably different markings. Two owlets! I called them Sammy and Junior, hoping for a third I could call Davis, but it wasn't to be.

On June 18, I was fairly certain Samantha was no longer in the box. I knew it was standard behavior for her to leave the box once the owlets were a couple of weeks old. Difficult to see in evening light, we did observe the Sam on a few occasions making the night-time meal delivery. One afternoon, on the ground beneath the box was a headless mouse. It was gone the next morning.

On the evening of June 20, I lingered at the scope watching Sammy survey the world, thinking how incredibly lucky we were to have this little family. Just when I was wondering how long they would stay, Sammy flew out of the box right in front of my eyes! Anxious to know about Junior, I was up early the next morning to see if he was still in the box.

Unable to coax the owlets to appear as I could Samantha, it was a long day until I finally spied Junior peaking out of the box. I had no idea if Sammy had returned, or where the little owl might be.

Junior spent a good part of the day at the opening of the box looking around, twisting his head this way and that, bobbing to and fro; he looked like he was preparing to go.

The next day, as I sat at the table on our deck, eyes glued to the box, I realized that Sammy was sitting on a branch in the scrub oak just in front me. With eyes on me, I spoke to him ever so gently. He remained on the same branch the entire day, moving only inches. Junior was taking it all in from the safety of the box and seemed more restless than ever.

I didn't see Sammy again after that day, but Junior was around for the next two days. I didn't get to see his first flight, but it soon became apparent he had left the box, too. An Internet search suggested that the owl family was more than likely gone.

It was a good run, though, almost three months of enjoying the owls' company. We miss them, but hope they're safe and sound, and will live long and prosper. I hope one of their progeny will return to our flicker box someday.

About Kathy Crowe Finholm

Kathy Crowe Finholm is a professional photographer who splits her time between Snowmass Village, Colorado, and San Juan Island, Washington.

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