An extended version of this morning’s “Porch.”
At dawn, amid the creaking of trees in the wind, I hear the wavering cry of a screech owl down in the pines. Half a minute later, the male answers: a lower-pitched call from up in the woods. They duet for a couple of minutes, trill-calls intermixed with their trademark descending whinnies.
The temperature is just around freezing, and the air smells of rain. I catch a glimpse of movement off to the left — can they really be that close? — and then there they are, two small, winged silhouettes fluttering through the trees. They connect in mid-air for barely a second, then land in adjacent treetops opposite the porch. They sit ruffling their feathers for about a minute, silent now. Then one at a time they fly off toward the powerline, their wings soundless as always. A gray squirrel begins to scold — softly, as if still half-asleep, or else trying to duet with the nearest tree, creaking in the dawn wind.
I sit clutching my empty coffee mug, thinking that perhaps a one-second mating is the perfect observation for a 140-character Twitter tweet — and realizing at the same time that a bare-bones account just won’t satisfy.
There’s a lot to the courtship of eastern screech owls that I didn’t witness, judging from the description on the Owl Pages (a good site, aside from the incredibly annoying pop-up link-ads).
Breeding season for Eastern Screech Owls is generally around mid April, but may range from mid March to mid May. [Ha!] They have an elaborate courtship ritual. Males approach females, calling from different branches until they are close. The male then bobs and swivels his head, bobs his entire body, and even slowly winks one eye at the female. If she ignores him, bobbing and swivelling motions intensify. If she accepts him, she moves close and they touch bills and preen each other. Pairs mate for life but will accept a new mate if the previous mate disappears. Gray and red colour phases will mate together.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives a slightly more nuanced account of their mating practices:
Eastern Screech-Owl pairs usually are monogamous and remain together for life. Some males, however, will mate with two different females. The second female may evict the first female, lay her own eggs in the nest, and incubate both clutches.
As with most birds, the male lacks any penis whatsoever. Male and female openings are outwardly identical, and the consummation of all that mutual preening tends to be as brief, and seemingly about as passionate, as a peck on the cheek. Homosexual pair bonding has been observed among barn owls, and there’s no reason to doubt that it occurs among screech owls, too: nature loves infinite variety, even if some humans don’t. (See here for sad proof of the latter.)
Happy belated Valentine’s Day, y’all. Thanks for reading.