Screech owls born in Central Park

2 fluffy youngsters are first of their kind born in the city in 50 years

April 21, 2002|By John B. Forbes | John B. Forbes,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - For the first time in more than 50 years, Eastern screech owls have successfully bred in Central Park.

A fluffy pair of the 7-inch, yellow-eyed youngsters has been spotted huddling in willows west of the lake, usually with a parent attending. Their arrival is a successful step in an experimental reintroduction plan run by the New York City Parks Department's Ranger Wildlife Management Program.

There have been three Central Park releases of screech owls, most of which were tagged with a tracking device. Six were freed there in 1998, an additional 18 first-year birds were released last fall and another pair was added three weeks ago.

"We think the mother is the lone survivor from 1998," said Alex Brash, the Urban Park Service chief. "And the father we believe is No. 18, released last fall."

Four of last fall's birds are known to be dead. Six are still being tracked by radio. Others have been spotted, but their tracking devices were either missing or malfunctioning.

"They are breeding, and they are acclimatizing to the city," Brash said. "Some are foraging outside the park and then returning."

Bill Giuliano, a wildlife ecologist at Fordham's field station in Armonk, said the fledglings appeared earlier than expected. "This pair may have bred early because the inherent warmth of the city, and mild winter," he said. "Temperature is one of the breeding cues. And there is an abundance of food."

These raptors were first seen but not identified on March 28 near Central Park West and 74th Street by Nereida Hernandez, a Central Park Conservancy gardener, who reported them to her superior, Regina Alvarez. On April 6, Merrill Higgins, a veteran birder on an early morning stroll, identified them as babies from their small ear tufts and downy feathers.

That night Dr. Robert DeCandido, leading a walk in the area and using a screech owl territorial call, found the youngsters "who were flitting around the trees like giant moths."

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