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The joy of finding a backyard owl

In this trail-cam image, a Great Horned Owl perches on a tray feeder in the author’s yard in Duluth, Minnesota. She placed the camera with the goal of documenting a flying squirrel but spotted the owl instead. Photo by Laura Erickson

In October 2020, I set a trail-cam on a tray feeder in hopes of documenting a flying squirrel, but instead, I recorded a Great Horned Owl using the feeder as a hunting perch. Without the cam, I wouldn’t have suspected it had visited.

The more natural habitat in your neighborhood, the more likely owls will visit. Big old trees provide safe roosting and sometimes nesting spots, and native trees, shrubs, and other plants produce seeds and foster insects that feed the small animals owls prey upon. Most backyard owls go undetected, but screech-owls can be easy to notice in nest boxes — they spend part of most days peeking out. (Plans from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are here.)

Screech-owls are rare where I live, in Duluth, Minnesota, but hundreds and sometimes thousands of birders gravitate here in winter to enjoy more northerly species near the western tip of the largest lake in the world. Twelve owl species have been recorded in my city and the surrounding county. In the 40 years I’ve lived here, I’ve seen all of them, seven in my own backyard.

Detecting so many has involved focusing by night on their hoots and other calls and by day on chickadees, jays, and crows. The silent crows gathering ominously on the school playground equipment in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds may seem like “a murder of crows,” but the expression seems more apt when crows are screaming bloody murder at a large owl. Yelling jays and crows have pointed out almost every Long-eared, Great Horned, Barred, and Great Gray Owl I’ve seen in my neighborhood, and “swearing” chickadees have led me to a lot of Northern Saw-whet and Boreal Owls.

My “birder’s brain” helps me notice songs and calls even when I’m not birding. My hearing has deteriorated as I’ve aged, but I can still hear the mellow hooting of Great Horned Owls and sharper tooting of saw-whets from indoors even when my windows are closed. On the night of September 8, 2004, I heard an Eastern Screech-Owl whinnying and went out to see it — the only one I’ve found this far north. Boreal Owls are much more likely here and have a louder, more piercing call, but they usually restrict their vocalizing to forests where they nest, not residential neighborhoods. The only time I’ve ever heard a Boreal Owl in my backyard was about 1 a.m. on November 3, 2016, a date I’ll never forget. My beloved Chicago Cubs had just won the World Series two hours before. I’d been too excited to sleep, but when I finally took my dog out before bed, the owl was calling away, and I even saw its silhouette in the dark. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one celebrating that night.

I’m sure I’ve missed many more owls than I’ve seen in my yard, but knowing one could be there keeps me attentive. After all, the only thing better than an owl turning up in the backyard is seeing it.

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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

Laura Erickson on social media