It's a hoot... Making Magnolia owl friendly

It had been a good year for the Magnolia couple.

They now have a home to serve them for many years to come, and their work together was proving beneficial for the neighbors, raising their standing in the community.

Young and hard working, they would spend their lives together, facing whatever uncertainties came their way. With the arrival of offspring, together they coped with the incredible demands of parenting.

In many ways they were just a regular Magnolia couple. But they could never be typical, because they are a barn-owl pair, living 25 feet off the ground in a cedar nest box, in the back corner of a Magnolia yard.

And they live a life that many of their human counterparts would find enviable: flying off about this time every year to spend winter in desert areas of Arizona, Southern California and Northern Mexico.

Enviable as well is the fact that their human neighbors love them so much, though for the very reason you probably wouldn't want to be them, as their voracious eating habits involve rodents of all kinds. Particularly moles, because they are so small and easy to pick off when surfacing at night. And rats, because with the hatching of baby owlets, there are now hungry mouths to feed.

But this hasn't happened yet. And it won't without your help.

In the 1980s, a dialogue started between gardening enthusiasts and the environmental movement. An idea began to take shape: your backyard as a place both beautiful and enjoyable to human beings, while also beneficial as habitat for native plants and animals.

People raising their awareness, living in harmony with their environment. Enjoying nature, and reaping some benefits along the way.

In the mid-1960s, I was growing up in Montlake, the Seattle neighborhood inside an L-shape formed by the Washington Park Arboretum and the extensive Interlaken Drive greenbelt.

Back in those days, basements would flood during periods of extensive rain, and ground in the Interlaken greenbelt would saturate, causing small springs of water literally to erupt in yards along Boyer Avenue - which years before had been an extensive marshy bog.

Citizens complained; something had to be done.

City storm-drainage systems were upgraded, and year-round streams became seasonal trickles. The downside? Native plants accustomed to the seasonal climate cycles of our region were unable to compete. Invasive, non-native plants like English Ivy virtually took over in the greenbelts.

Today our city is virtually swarming with rats. As a kid 40 years ago, I never saw a single one. Why? In those days Seattle had resident wild coyote, which we saw almost every day. Particularly if that evening we had not coaxed in our wayward Siamese cat, and were now out with flashlights looking for her.

Somehow the cat made it home every night - and lived with our family almost 20 years.

The primary food sources for the coyote were rodents. So when humans decided the coyote had to go, the rats lost their major predator. We humans had made a decision: baits and poisons left out for the rodents were less dangerous for our pets and children than four-legged varmint-eaters.

Somehow I think we miscalculated on that one.

There are a few coyote left in Discovery Park. But they are elusive, and seem to somehow understand that any direct interaction with humans will bring on lethal consequences. The fur and bone in their scat is all I have observed in the park, yet over the years I've walked there regularly, putting in hundreds of hours planting trees (and pulling ivy).

So when it comes to our rodent problem, the coyote of Discovery Park will not be coming to our rescue.

But here in Magnolia we are in luck - because of Discovery Park, and the small population of noble raptors that return every spring.

Yes, our friendly, sun-loving, see-you-in-Sonora barn owl neighbors. We human beings would be mighty advised to help get the word out among their friends about how Magnolia would be a great place to settle down and raise a family - as in, the kind of silent and hungry owl family that every night eats its weight in rodents.

The challenge for us is that great working conditions for barn owls require plenty of overhanging branches of the tree kind. We made a start with the city's Millennium Tree Project in 2000, which encompassed a several-year effort at planting trees along our streets and sidewalks. The tree project culminated in actually giving them away for residential yards.

Some 2,500 trees were planted in Magnolia during that period, and we are now starting to see just a hint of what we can accomplish on behalf of our friendly barn owl and (hopefully) future neighbors.

While Discovery Park's barn owls have left for a sunny winter in the desert, the good news for us is that winter is the best time to plant trees. My advice is to head on down to the Garden Center; they can help you plant a tree well away from your house. Perhaps in years ahead that tree's mighty growth will provide a home for some lovely barn owls who themselves heard about Magnolia - while wintering in the desert.

If you have a story of promoting a healthy backyard habitat, send P. Scott Cummins an email at[[In-content Ad]]