Boxing days to give shelter to our barn owl population

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IT has not been the best of weather to be working outside this past week, so I have been spending time in my man cave repairing the last of the beehive equipment ready for next year and cutting and painting lengths of timber in preparation for erecting owl boxes.

Of course, as soon as I slide the door to the workshop open, seemingly by magic robins and blackbirds appear in the apple tree or on the greenhouse roof, their eyes staring at me telepathically and transmitting two simple words: meal worms.

Robins never seem to have the same caution around humans that other birds do and over the years I have had generations of them willing to take food from my hand. They have a surprising repertoire of sounds that they use to communicate with, varying from song to out-and-out aggression, but there is one that I sense they reserve for us.

Have you ever noticed that if you are working in the garden forking over ground a robin will appear and watch intently to spot a worm or tasty invertebrate? If you think back to such a time you may recall that you became aware of the bird before you saw it because it had given the faintest of soft whistles to let you know it was there.

I mention this because now I have a female blackbird doing the same. She too quietly hops into the shop and gently calls to let me know she is there looking for a handout and shows no fear of my presence, while the male loiters outside ever hopeful of a miss thrown titbit.

Out for a duck

On Tuesday, I took a call from a friend saying that she had seen a strange-looking bird hunkered down in some scrub near her driveway. Given the gales over the weekend, this was likely to be one of many birds that have been injured, blown off course and grounded. On investigation it turned out to be an Indian runner duck which must have originated from a private collection somewhere. It felt very light and was lethargic, to say the least.

Having caught and wrapped it securely in a towel I was faced with a challenge, for I had Dillon the Dachshund with me, and ducks and dachshunds are best kept separated. Having handed over Dillon to be spoilt by my friend for a time and placed the bird on the passenger seat, I climbed in and was about to start the engine when the bird became very agitated.

The situation was quickly resolved by placing my woollen hat over its head and duck and man then had an uneventful trip to the JSPCA.

I have just had a report back from the JSPCA to say that the duck is doing well and they will let me know when I can release it back into the wild.

Barn owl boxes

The recent weather has been very frustrating for us on the barn owl front. With strong winds and heavy rain over a long period of time the owls will have struggled to catch enough prey to stay in good condition and any added stress as a result of box disturbance is the last thing they need.

When we go to check a box, we never know for certain whether it is occupied, so we take great care to be quiet so that we can place a cushion in the box entrance to keep any occupant in, especially if the weather is unsettled.

There are occasions when the bird emits despite our best efforts, and then there is a concern that should the weather turn for the worse the bird is at risk. Unless we are putting up a brand-new box, we try to ensure that the forecast gives fair weather a day either side of the workday so that should an owl be disturbed it can roost up in a nearby tree and stay dry and safe.

We have a six-month window outside of the breeding season in which to replace boxes but given this window occurs in the autumn and winter the weather is often against us.

At present we maintain 254 boxes, of which we have replaced 135, with most of the remainder being a rag-tag mix of boxes in poor condition. Thanks to Islanders’ generosity we will now be able to continue our replacement programme and so give the Island’s barn owls a well-proven box to roost and nest in. From a work and research point of view it means that we have boxes that are easy to access with minimal disturbance to the birds, with hatchways designed to allow us to remove young birds to weigh, measure and ring without the risk of them escaping while giving them opportunities to exercise their growing wings in a box designed to keep them as safe as possible.

We cut sheets of ethically sourced high-grade ply to a set pattern, minimising waste and maximising the speed of assembly. Despite the ply having a manufacturer’s warranty, the resulting boxes and landing boards are treated with a long-lasting preservative, the bases have drainage holes added in them and the roofs are tarred and felted. The same attention to detail is given to the individually made mounting frame that supports the box in the selected tree. In all, there are 42 individual parts that go into each assembly, not counting the screws and nails.

A busy bird ringer

Tyto alba, the barn owl, is a stunningly beautiful owl that lives every day on the edge of starvation, being dependent on minimal night-time rain and low winds, coupled with a good supply of rodents.

As we know, the weather is becoming less predictable, and add the fact that rodent populations have a tendency to crash every four to seven years it is not surprising that the barn owls’ breeding success can fluctuate dramatically. In order for a female to reach peak breeding condition she needs to maintain a body weight in excess of 400 grams, and that is dependent on her smaller, lighter mate providing her with extra food.

Just to stay alive they each need to catch at least two bank voles a night – preferably four – and then add the pressure of supplying food for two or three growing young and it is not surprising that they have a high mortality rate.

Being able to monitor breeding success and survival through the ringing programme has been vital in helping understand their hunting range, average life expectancy and juvenile mortality. In 2021 63 birds were ringed, which given the challenges of the pandemic and weather was a fair achievement by our very busy bird ringer. When this is added to the number of birds that we know had fledged before we could get to them, it shows this has been an average breeding year.

What we do not know is how many of this year’s young will see past their first year, for the parents do not teach them to hunt or show them the dangers that surround them. Image that you have just learned to drive, and you now to drive from London to Cardiff in the dark without lights, GPS or road signs, how far do you think you would get without having an accident?

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