Vertically Challenged

Those of you that regularly read these diary pages will know that we like to bring you regular up-dates of the new arrivals at S.O.S.  So far this year’s breeding programme has been quite successful and our proudest achievement to date was the arrival of our first parent-reared Boobook Owlet. (For more information, click here to read our Boobook Baby story.)

But every now and then we sometimes wish to add birds to the collection which we are unable to breed ourselves, simply because we have no parent birds of the relevant species.  So, if you like puzzles, try to guess which terrifying new species of raptor had come to join us at Stonham!

Here are some clues.  Firstly, this type of owl quite literally couldn’t get any smaller - for which reason we are calling the new arrivals Titch & Tiny. Secondly, they’re members of the Little Owl family.  And thirdly - the best clue I can give you - is that these little fella’s are the only species of owl known to nest underground. 

As Rolf Harris might say, “Can you tell what it is yet?”  

The answer we’re looking for is that our new arrivals - aptly named Titch & Tiny - are Burrowing Owls, or Athene Cunicularia for the Latin scholars amongst you.  (For non-Latin scholars, you can always tell a Burrowing Owl because they carry little shovels around with them!  Boom boom!)

To be accurate, only five-week-old Titch has arrived at S.O.S. so far: Tiny will be joining us shortly.  For the record meanwhile, Titch currently stands approximately 5 inches tall and as a full grown adult could potentially reach the dizzying heights of, oh, 8.5 inches or more (which is where the ‘vertically challenged’ bit comes in). 

When fully mature, both Titch & Tiny will look remarkably similar to our native Little Owl, with the exception of their remarkably long legs, which they skilfully use for digging and excavating their burrows in the wild!

Burrowing Owls originate from the Americas and were first recorded in 1782 by Giovanni Ignazio Molina, an Italian Jesuit priest stationed in Chile.  As a species, the Burrowing Owl has been known by a variety of different names in the past, some of which are still in common use today - the Howdy Owl, the Cuckoo Owl, the Tunnel Owl,  the Gopher Owl, the Prairie Dog Owl and the Rattlesnake Owl being amongst them

Without doubt, the last three of these monikers are the most apposite because Gophers, Prairie Dogs and Rattlesnakes are all creatures which like to live in holes or burrows below ground in their native habitat and, when the opportunity presents itself, the intuitive Burrowing Owls waste no time in making use of the abandoned burrows of their desert neighbours!  Nevertheless, the long legs of this fascinating little bird provide them with equipment well suited to digging a burrow for themselves, should the need arise.

Another fact about Burrowing Owls that you’ll rarely find in any of the of the literature about them is that they are wonderful mimics who can imitate a particular sound of the desert with a very practical purpose in mind.  

As my falconry mentor, Sharron Garforth, told me when she allowed me allow me to fly Ruby,  her Burrowing Owl, this particular species specialise in replicating the noise of an alarmed rattlesnake rattling its tail as warning to other creatures to stay away. This proves a very useful deterrent to uninvited guests attempting to enter the burrow in order to steal eggs from the nest and indeed, it’s a vocal weapon which is so effective it manages to fool other rattlesnakes in territorial disputes too - quite a feat for such a diminutive bird!

For the moment, Titch still has a bit of growing do, though he/she will get much bigger (it’s too early determine the sex of this owl just yet).  But the feathers are still growing and Titch has yet to fledge.  We’ll keep you up-dated with progress and of course let you know when Tiny arrives.

In the meantime, if you would like to meet Titch in person, why not pay us a visit over the summer - you’ll be very welcome!