The Mysterious Florida Owl
By Hank Brandli, Melbourne, Fl
My wife’s brother Harlan was a Manual Arts teacher in a central Texas High School. During his thirty years of teaching (where he never missed a day), he sent us numerous wooden masterpieces. We received a clock, lamps, etc. and then about a decade ago we received a box birdhouse. Pleased with our new acquisition, my wife, Ellie hung it on an Australian Pine Tree which stood next to our pond. The birdhouse had a little roof and about a one inch diameter circular hole designed to accommodate the small birds that inhabited our property on Florida’s east coast.
Only one other species of bird, a flycatcher, appeared on the roof one day. It kept coming back but never built a nest.
Then, in May of 2005, while I was in the swimming pool looking at the opening of the birdhouse I saw what looked like a cobweb blocking the elliptical entrance to the birdhouse. I called Ellie and she came out, looked at the birdhouse again, and said, “My God, there’s a bird in there looking out at me.”
Ellie ran to get her digital camera and took two images. Then, she took these pictures and searched through the Audubon Bird book and discovered that it was probably an elf owl. It had the same features, the same color eyes, and it was very small. An elf owl is the smallest owl in North America – 6 inches in size when fully grown.
The first published report on the Elf Owl was by James Graham Cooper (1830 -1902) in 1861. “Whitneyi” is a Latinised word formed from the last name of Josiah Dwight Whitney (1819-1896), a prominent American geologist was the founder of the Harvard School of Mining in 1868. The elf owl was first known as Whitney’s owl. Other Names are: Texas Elf Owl, Whitney’s Elf Owl, and Dwarf Owl. In Mexico, it is called “enano”.
The Elf Owl is a tiny, short-tailed, owl of the arid southwestern United States and Mexico. It has a round head with no ear tufts. Plumage is brownish-grey overall, and is washed with white on the belly and cinnamon on the face. Cinnamon or buffy spots dot the forehead and wings. An irregular white stripe runs down the scapular feathers, with irregular white spots running along the outer edge of the folded wings. A broken white collar runs along the lower nape. Wings are relatively long. The short tail is barred with 3 to 5 horizontal pale stripes. Feet and legs appear naked but are sparsely covered with bristly feathers. Eyes are pale yellow and are highlighted by thin white “eyebrows”. The bill is grey with a horn-colored tip. Juveniles are similar to adults but the crown is a uniform brown-grey without spots, and the face greyer than adults without ruddy flecks.
Average Lengths: Female 16 cm (6.1”) , Male and 15 cm (5.8”).
Average Wingspan: Female 38 cm (15”) , Male 37 cm (14.6”).
Average Weight: 44g (1.5oz) for breeding females.
Lo and behold, the Audubon book stated that this owl will build its nest in old trees -- where woodpeckers had built a house and abandoned it. So this was even more exciting. Here we had an owl, not in a tree, but in a bird house reconfigured by a red bellied woodpecker.
We were both excited over this mysterious new visitor. Having lived in Florida for many years, we hear owls everyday whenever we go outside. It could be morning, noon or night when we hear the “whoo, whoo’s” of an owl. But we had never seen one before. So now, not only have we seen one, but we have it in our birdhouse and two images of it.
But there was an uncertainty. The report on the the elf owl, the smallest owl in North America stated that it lives in the California desert region or northern Mexico and sometimes migrates to northern Texas but none of their species live in Florida. Now, I was really excited; I thought not only have we got an owl, but we’ve got a rare owl and maybe the first one that ever came to Florida.
Envisioning a National Geographic special or other report on this unusual find, I immediately followed up on it by sending the picture to a couple of my friends who were well informed in this area. One of them gave it a luke – warm confirmation. I then sent an e-mail with the two pictures to Bill Sargent, the wildlife reporter for the Florida Today newspaper.
I had scanned his columns and sure enough, at the bottom of one there were two stories he had written on woodpeckers. I was directed to the Audubon page, where there was a contact address so I sent an e-mail to the Audubon Society with the pictures of our so called Elf Owl residing in our birdhouse.
The next day I received an e-mail from Mr. Rob Ferris, Science Coordinator, Audubon at Home National Audubon Science Office in Pennsylvania. He said, “Hank, what you have is a baby screech owl! It looks really nice in the enlarged opening of the birdhouse which was probably enlarged by squirrels.” (Little did he know it was a red bellied woodpecker that enlarged the birdhouse hole). Our mysterious owl had a new and more definitive identity!
The eastern Screech Owl was first described by Carolus Linnaeus the Swedish naturalist who developed binomial nomenclature to classify and organise plants and animals. He classified it in 1758. The origin of the word “Asio” is unknown, but it came to mean “Owl” in Latin. Eastern Screech Owls have also been called: the common screech Owl, Ghost Owl, Dusk Owl, Little-eared Owl, Spirit Owl, Little Dukelet, Texas Screech-Owl, whickering Owl, little gray Owl, mottled Owl, the red Owl, the mouse Owl, the cat Owl, the shivering Owl, and the little horned Owl.
The Eastern Screech Owl is a small, nocturnal, woodland Owl. There are two color morphs, a gray phase and a reddish-brown phase. And, they live in every state in the United States of America. The mysterious owl living in our little birdhouse was now identified as the Eastern Screech Owl.
Now, we will wait and see if the owl is going to grow up, lay eggs, come back every year and continue our owl adventure in our homemade wooden modified birdhouse in our backyard in Melbourne Florida. We didn’t have to wait long. The owl left the next day and was never seen again!