What, if anything, frightens you in nature? Spiders, snakes, bears, something else?
I recently learned what frightens screech owls.
For seven years now, I’ve had an unusual arrangement with a western screech owl. As soon as the breeding season ends in June and the weather turns hot, the owl moves into the rafters of our garage. Yes, it makes a bit of a mess with droppings, molted feathers and pellets (regurgitated remains of bones, fur and insect parts formed into tidy little bundles), but I don’t mind.
She stares at me accusingly when I enter the garage but remains unperturbed as the car is moved in and out. Operating the table saw, sander and router don’t bother her in the least.
One year, one of her fledged young still with a bit of down clinging to its feathers followed her into the garage to roost, but the stress of a human in close proximity proved too much. It would fly nervously from one corner to another when my wife or I entered. It left that evening never to return.
When the weather cools in the fall, the owl disappears to its winter home. Scrub jays tell me she or her mate is in the Italian cypress out front. Jays detest owls and noisily object whenever they find one.
This summer I entered the garage surprised to see the owl wide-eyed with neck stretched and panting. It stared across the garage focused on the rafters. I followed her stare and discovered a three-foot-long gopher snake moving among the items stored there. The owl was having none of this.
Gopher snakes are harmless to humans, but mice have a different perspective. Gopher snakes are constrictors that coil around their prey preventing them from inhaling, which suffocates them. While mice and other small rodents make up the bulk of the prey for gopher snakes, they do occasionally climb trees and prey upon baby birds in nests. I suppose this is why the gopher snake in my garage had made its way into the rafters, although I have no idea how it accomplished this daring feat.
The screech owl was in no danger. An adult owl having detected the snake simply has to keep out of the way. Owls can fly, and snakes can’t. Moreover, the screech owl is far too big for the snake to consume. Still, I find it fascinating that the owl was clearly panicked by the snake. The response seemed excessive, but then many people respond similarly when confronted by a harmless snake. There is just something about snakes that evokes fear.
While I could stand to lose a mouse or two from the garage, I felt the need to provide aid to my buddy of seven years. I got a ladder and removed the snake from the rafters and released it to the woodpile, where there are many more mice to hunt. As for the screech owl? Well, she left that evening, and I wasn’t sure whether she would be back. I figured I would have to take sole responsibility for the mess in my garage.
But six weeks after the incident, the screech owl recovered from her traumatic experience and returned to her usual place in the rafters of the garage.
Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.