Screech owls nest in Central Park

Environmental effort is part of plan to restore native species

March 03, 2002|By John B. Forbes | John B. Forbes,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - A young group of pint-size predators has begun to make a home in Central Park.

Eighteen tiny Eastern screech owls were released in three sections of the park in September in the hope that they would establish territories and start to breed. Although common in the eastern United States, the last screech-owl sighting in the park was recorded in 1955.

The experiment is part of the Parks Department's Wildlife Management Program, which has surveyed flora and fauna in its 28,000 acres with an eye to restoring species once native to the areas.

"We are trying to find species that fit into our current urban park settings - no black bears or rattlesnakes," said Alex Brash, head of the Urban Park Service.

The screech owls, less than a year old, stand between 7 and 10 inches tall, have wingspans up to 22 inches, but weigh only about 7 ounces.

People may have difficulty spotting these small raptors. Most spend winter days deep inside holes in tree trunks. When sunning, their gray-red and white camouflage blends with the bark. At night they slide soundlessly among the branches, hunting mice, young rats or smaller birds.

Radio telemetry is aiding the usual visual tracking. Seventeen of the owls were released with transmitters that are slightly larger than a nickel. (One owl was too small for a radio.) But after a month, 12 had managed to nibble or wriggle out of their radio straps. Five owls have been recaught and had radios with beak-proof titanium straps installed.

"We can track the birds up to about a mile away," said Dr. Bill Giuliano, a wildlife ecologist at Fordham University's field station in Armonk, N.Y. He and his group of students have visited the park four times a week since September, helping the park rangers track the owls in the day and at night.

On one such visit Giuliano and E.J. McAdams, the Urban Park Service's biodiversity coordinator, took less than 30 minutes to find one owl near the Sheep Meadow. The owl was No. 2 in the study. All owls have number designations.

Dr. Robert DeCandido, a park ranger, has shepherded groups of up to 35 amateur birders on night owl walks. To attract the owls, DeCandido plays a tape recording of a screech owl's territorial call. The whinnying cry followed by mournful descending notes sounds eerily in the night calm. Soon the new residents answer in kind, then slide onto a high branch to inspect the intruders.

Those trying find an owl in daytime can listen for excited blue jays and other birds, DeCandido said. "They try to mob an owl and you just follow the noise," he said.

Several owls have established home ranges, and some courtship behavior has been observed as well as one mating. But three of the owls with transmitters are known to have died, DeCandido said.

"The mortality rate of first-year screech owls is between 60 and 70 percent," he said. "So we are doing all right."

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