South Park Magazine

Guess whooo?

Dr. Bierregard with barrel owl Devon inside the Norton family home.
Dr. Bierregard with barrel owl Devon inside the Norton family home. THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Editor's Note: This story ran in the April 2010 issue of SouthPark Magazine.

That haunting cry at evening – hoo-hoo-to-hoo-oo! – has the ring of the wild about it. Coming from high in Charlotte’s dense tree cover, it sends mice, chipmunks and small songbirds scurrying for cover.

Yet it’s music to the ears of many Charlotteans who live in old, long-established urban neighborhoods such as Myers Park, Eastover and Plaza-Midwood. To them, it’s a signal that “our owls” are about their nightly business of communing with a mate or warning off rivals.

In these in-town neighborhoods, barred owls have made themselves an integral part of the landscape. In spite of barking dogs, honking traffic and even helicopters whose rotors split the night air, some 300 pairs are estimated to be living within 10 miles of uptown’s Square at Trade and Tryon.

They and their fuzzy, big-eyed babies have become a living science lesson for neighborhood kids as well as a source of entertainment for adults.

”Everybody loves their owls,” says Rob Bierregaard of UNC Charlotte. “They’re very noisy. Every neighborhood knows they’re there.”

A nightly ritual for one Myers Park family, a neighbor says, is to head for the patio, take a glass of wine and listen to the owls.

“It’s almost as though they want our attention,” says Chanee Vijay, who lives near the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. She remembers once when an owl “was sitting on the nook of a tree maybe 10 feet up, not 4 feet from the sidewalk. And we’re all sitting there taking pictures of him . . . they’re used to getting oohed and aahed at.”

'We caught it!'

Bierregaard, a visiting distinguished research professor in UNC Charlotte’s biology department, started leading graduate students in a study of Charlotte’s owls 11 years ago. He intended to find out if they followed the scientific textbooks and preferred woods and fields to city life.

As he discovered a thriving population, he wondered: “Did the owls not read the book?”

He theorizes that the owls are drawn by the same graceful old trees and wide lawns that attract the neighborhoods’ human residents. The city’s famed willow oaks have holes large enough to raise an owl family in, and the lawns provide an unobstructed view of songbird prey chowing down at bird feeders.

The researchers keep check on some 40 pairs, from South Boulevard over to Chantilly and down through Eastover and Myers Park. Though traffic presents a problem – “They get killed by cars a lot,” Bieeregaard says – adult owls here live to an average 10 to 12 years. They mate for life, but will replace a deceased mate “within a couple of weeks,” Bierregaard says.

Whenever Bierregaard and his graduate students show up with nets, mice and sometimes tree-climbing gear, families and sometimes whole neighborhoods show up to watch baby owls being banded or adults being outfitted with radios.

One cold night in January, an adult owl named Devon kept tantalizing her host family, Bill and Stephanie Norton and their three children, and Bierregaard and his assistant, Jennifer Bates, with flybys.

This is the fourth year that the Nortons have been watching Devon, who nests with Sugar Daddy 40 feet up in their backyard. This year, she hadn’t yet taken up residency, but was hanging around the neighborhood. Bierregard had baited a net with a live mouse, but Devon was coy.

“We caught it,” finally announced 10-year-old Audrey Norton as the net closed over 2½ pounds of startled owl. Devon was carried into the Nortons’ den for measuring and removal of a nonworking radio.

“Does it hurt?” 7-year-old Will asked anxiously as his sister used scissors on the radio’s elastic straps. Bierregaard reassured him that “It’s like a little backpack.”

Suddenly, her radio and head covering removed, Devon came to life with a threatening lift of her 4-foot wingspan. Her audience jumped, and Bierregaard carried her outdoors to rejoin her world. “We’d like to have her sleep over,” Stephanie Norton deadpanned, “But..”

Owls with Facebook friends

In a couple of cases, Charlotte’s owl drama is being played out before a wider audience. Chanee Vijay is chronicling the life of a Myers Park pair via video and a Facebook page called “We Love Chili the Barred Owl on Chelsea Drive.”

One video shows Chili’s chicks, twin balls of soft feathers, being hauled out of the nest by Bierregaard. After petting by a neighborhood kid, they’re banded. In a later video, the owl twins, Salsa and Pepper – nobody knows their gender – perch on a branch.

“I watched them learn how to fly; it was very painful to watch,” Vijay says. “They would climb up the tree with their claws . . . they were just clinging on for dear life.”

Chili’s Facebook fans notwithstanding, the owl couple with the widest audience are the Percys of Eastover. Veteran owl parents Percy and Mrs. Percy have been stars of a “nestcam,” a real-time video feed from their nest to the world via Cornell University’s Web site.

Owl lovers all over Charlotte and beyond watched last year as Percy brought mice home and Mrs. Percy tore them into small bits for twin babies. Within five weeks or so, “they both left the nest happy, and all was well,” Bierregaard says.

The year before, Bierregaard had tried putting a microphone in the Percys’ nest box. Spooked, they took off and settled in a neighbor’s decorative chimney. Last year, the neighbor obligingly put a screen over the chimney, and the Percys returned to their familiar backyard.

Earlier this year, the Percys were back, but competing with a raccoon and a squirrel for their home. Bierregaard planned to give them a little help by putting a predator guard beneath their box.

His goal: To get them back in residence so he can re-establish the nestcam connection so that the Percys have an audience for their egg-hatching and chick-rearing in March and April.

Want to Owl-Watch?

"We Love Chili the Barred Owl of Chelsea Drive"http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=79977653076

http://watch.birds.cornell.edu/nestcams/home/index or access the Percy's link through Bierregaard's owl page, http://www.bioweb.uncc.edu/bierregaard/barred_owls.htm

If watching owls outdoors, follow Bierregaard’s two rules. 1) Don’t feed them. Familiarity breeds aggressiveness. 2) If an owlet has fallen, you can put it back in a tree, but watch out for protective adults who are likely watching. If you can’t put it in a tree, call Carolina Raptor Center at 704-875-6521.

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