February 26, 2024
A predator or lack of food might have prompted an owl's departure from its longtime Santa Clara home.

DEAR JOAN: I used to see barn owls around my neighborhood a lot. Most nights I would hear or see one flying high overhead northwards and other nights I would see one flying around lower. But I have not seen or heard them for nearly a year. Where could they have gone? Do individual barn owls have their own territories that change over time?

— Tim Avila, Santa Clara

DEAR TIM: It’s always awesome, I think, to have a barn owl for a neighbor, but there are a couple of things that might make them move to a different neighborhood.

The first is a lack of food. Although it’s hard to imagine a shortage of rats, if other predators are taking a share and your neighbors are doing their best to keep the rodents at bay, the supply might be limited.

Scientists believe barn owls eat at least one rat a day, so a mom and dad, plus a couple of kids, would need four a day. That comes to more than 1,000 in a year. One of their biggest enemies is the great horned owl, which loves nothing more than eating a few owlets from the nest. They also will attack the adults. If a barn owl senses a threat, it will move to a new, safer location.

Sadly, barn owls can fall victim to a number of unfortunate situations, including being killed through secondary poisoning. If someone in the neighborhood is using rat poisons, an owl eating a poisoned rat will also be poisoned, which is why we shouldn’t use rodenticides.

DEAR JOAN: When watering my patio and refilling the birdbath, I have also taken, on hot days, to spraying the bushes. Not only do the plants need water, but I have so enjoyed watching the small birds, especially hummingbirds, drinking and bathing in the drops on the leaves. Hummingbirds don’t only drink from my sugary feeders.

Also, I finally saw our little night guest that I asked about some time ago, and identified it as a chickadee. He and a buddy hang out under the eaves on the other side of the house, where they apparently feel safe and protected. Do chickadees migrate?

— Joanna Henrichs, El Cerrito

DEAR JOANNA: The chickadees we have in the Bay Area are chestnut-backed chickadees, and like their more northern cousins, the black-capped chickadees, they are not, strictly speaking, migratory.

Adult chickadees tend to stay in the same place, but they will travel short distances depending on the season. In the summer and hotter months, they tend to go to higher elevations, but return to the coast and inland areas before winter. That doesn’t mean you won’t see them at all during the summer, but that you’ll probably see more of them in the winter.

While many birds enjoy splashing in a birdbath and sipping water, smaller birds tend to favor showers. As you’ve observed, they splash in small puddles, drink droplets of water, or fuss about in the dripping leaves. Hummingbirds are notorious, in a good way, for doing this. They’ll even splash about under a leaky garden hose.

Because of this, some people like to put solar-operated fountains in their birdbaths. The devices create a small flume of water that serves two purposes, keeping the bath water stirred up a bit and giving hummingbirds and small tweeters a place to shower.

The Animal Life column runs on Mondays. Contact Joan Morris at [email protected].