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Owl city, isthmus eyes

Recording and reflecting on a few cherished encounters with Eastern Screech Owls in the Atwood area.
An illustration shows two colorful owls perched on branches, against a blue background.
Illustration by American Trash.

Recording and reflecting on a few cherished encounters with Eastern Screech Owls in the Atwood area.

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Jog along the Monona lake loop at Lakeland Avenue during the warmer months, and you’ll probably spot at least a few rabbits at any given time, adorable bundles of fur huddling in the grass who scamper away at approaching footsteps. But if you aren’t in the habit of strolling through and glancing up in the early twilight hours, when the neighborhood is illuminated by fluorescent street and house lights, you may have missed a couple wide-eyed nocturnal friends: Eastern Screech Owls who’ve made a home there this summer.

Sighting the majestic predators (most common to the Central and Eastern United States) seems like a rarity for most of us, but as someone who often refers to himself as a “night owl,” perhaps it only makes sense that I would eventually encounter my winged analogue. And that it would happen on a quiet jog through the East Side neighborhood when most residents have nestled inside for the evening—their soft chatter spilling out from open windows and blending in with the murmurs of crickets and fireflies.

I first became aware of a pair of owls back in June, a few streets directly to the north of Lakeland, on Center Avenue near the corner of Evergreen Avenue. As I lightly tread down the hill heading west after dusk had settled, I heard a distinctive high-pitched wheezing that stood out immediately amidst the other steady ambiance. There, in front of me on the shoulder of the road, was the silhouette of an owl suddenly flying up into the nearest tree as I moved closer. As I looked up to my left, there was another one perched on the edge of a roof near a gutter. Without anyone else in sight, it felt like a special encounter—comparable to privately happening upon young does in the wild. (Being from rural Pennsylvania, this is not so uncommon, and one late afternoon in West Madison I even got incredibly close to a couple deer along the wooded outskirts of Garner Park.)

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I thought that might be my one-time owl sighting in the area (aside from this wooden one), but I was proven wrong weeks later. The encounter seemed to take on new meaning in July when I came jogging down the Lakeland hill past Hudson Park and found, presumably, one of the very same owls perched on a “No Parking This Side” sign. Picture-perfect. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a camera on me, so I just had to cherish the moment and take a mental picture à la Jim and Pam. Wanting a more intimate face-to-face, I tip-toed within a few feet of the owl to wave “hello,” hoping not to startle them, and then continued on my brisk walk back home.

While I had started routinely jogging in the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara neighborhood in 2018 to not only get some much-needed exercise but also clear my head from persistent tech/app disruptions, I figured I had to break my no-phone rule the next time I went out for nightly jog. I hoped, by some miracle, to catch an actual photo of one or more of the owls at eye level and even record their calls. With a keen ear and a bit of luck circling the same streets, I found the pair again above me, wheezing away on a branch in one of the few trees at Lakeland-Schiller Park.

As someone who obviously isn’t an ornithologist or even familiar with bird-watching, I reached out to UW-Madison professor emeritus of wildlife ecology and environmental studies Stanley Temple for further insight on the feathered friends inhabiting the residential area near Lake Monona. After glancing at an amateur flash photo I blindly took of the owls in one of the tiniest parks in the city, Temple quickly and assuredly replied that they’re “fledglings that recently left the cavity (a hollow tree, old woodpecker nest, nest box, even holes in buildings) where their parents raised them. Now that they are out of the nest, they will continue to beg for food and be fed by their parents for several more weeks before learning how to catch prey by themselves.”

Ah, so their distinctively squeaky calls didn’t have a deeper meaning; it was just their way of whining, “I’m hungry,” and nothing more. In reflecting more on Temple’s answer, I wondered what I or any of us could do to keep these Eastern Screech fledglings around. In subsequent jogs through the area since the beginning of August, as the daylight hours have continued to recede, I haven’t heard or spotted them. But a potential solution for that may be to erect a simple nest box with a few boards and screws. Temple confirms that this would be a good idea, and points to a how-to guide from the National Audubon Society. If the owls are slowly moving south and away from the density of houses, would they eventually move to Olbrich Park, or even across the water to settle into Winnequah Park in Monona?

The Atwood area has a certain history with birds, er, marauding turkeys, and I for one welcome shifting our attention to the smaller, quieter, cuter tree and nest dwellers. The owls may not be as obvious or obtrusive as those turkeys, but, next time you’re out at night in the stillness of East Side Madison, listen for them! Citing a Madison birdwatchers group report at the end of 2021, Temple points out that “there are a surprising number of Eastern Screech Owls, Great Horned Owls, and Barred Owls living around Madison. Most people are unaware of them unless, like you, they are out after dark in a wooded area and observant.” There’s an Owl City joke in here somewhere.

An amateur flash photo taken by Grant Phipps in the early twilight hours at Lakeland-Schiller Park, showing the two Eastern Screech Owls sitting together on a low branch in a tree.
An amateur flash photo taken by Grant Phipps in the early twilight hours at Lakeland-Schiller Park, showing the two Eastern Screech Owls sitting together on a low branch in a tree.

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