Every year I witness something special, something I have not seen or heard before from the barn owls on our ranch in Fiddletown. Catching these moments requires patience and involves sitting quietly near the owl boxes between 8:30 and 9:00 pm just as the sky is getting very dark. Ginger, our Aussie dog, always comes along and sometimes Bart the cat. They know the routine – sit and wait.
This year we had 60 inches of rain in Fiddletown. The cover crop and the wild grass in alternate rows grew to 4 feet high and were so thick that you couldn’t see the earth below it.
I knew that we had owls in all 4 boxes in two different vineyards, but I had not heard a lot of action in the nighttime – sounds of the owls hovering and swooping down for their prey. Even though the barn owl’s hearing is so sharp they can find a rodent without seeing it, I guessed that they were hunting in my neighbors’ fields where the grass was grazed down by horses and cattle. Last week our vineyards were finally dry enough to get a tractor in without sinking. Our vineyard dude, Rob, started mowing the rows and after a couple of days I heard the “air force” return over the DTR Ranch.
A couple of nights ago under a waxing moon, I wandered down to our main owl box to stand and listen for signs of life. This is the time of year when the young owls hatch, usually about 3. The eggs are fertilized over a ten-day period, so the eggs hatch at different times in the order they were fertilized. Just as the light was fading the box came alive. I heard a rumbling and feet shuffling in the box (the female owl), and then a very faint screech (one hatched owlet).
Last night I checked again and was lucky to witness something new. The female owl in the box called out with a garbled sound, and then the male in the valley oak tree above the box answered with his loud screeching call. They called back and forth a few times. What were they saying?
"Hey, I'm awake and I'm starving. I'm stuck in this box and I need some food."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm on it."
Then with one long screech he soared off over the vineyard to start the hunt. The female went quiet and I heard the single owlet, today with a stronger voice, asking for something to eat.
The female barn owl will stay in the box until all the eggs are hatched, while the male hunts for her and the owlets. When all owlets are hatched they will share in the hunting. During the nesting period, they will need over 1,000 rodents. In order to live and breed over the course of a year, a pair of barn owls need to eat around 5,000 moles, gophers and field mice, protecting the vines from being destroyed.
This year everything seems to be on a late schedule, including the barn owls, so check back for updates on my owlet count.
Our organic vineyards in Fiddletown produce three wines that we are very proud of. Farming organically is a labor of love that you can feel in the wines.