China Grove couple happy to play host to families of birds of prey
By Steve Huffman
CHINA GROVE ó Roger Hull admitted he was a bit timid about scaling a ladder to get a closeup photograph of a pair of baby barred owls.
The birds, at the time only a few weeks old, were nesting in an owl box in the woods behind Hull’s house in China Grove.
Hull’s problem came not in climbing the ladder, but in keeping an eye on the mother bird who watched the proceedings from a tree limb a few feet away.
“There was no way I could leave in a hurry,” Hull said of his predicament should Mama Owl decide to swoop down to protect her young.
Fortunately, the big bird made no move as Hull photographed her brood. He shot the baby birds with a digital camera, holding it over his head and snapping several pictures blindly through a door in the box before descending.
The bottom of the owl house is about 15 feet off the ground.
Only after he was safely on the ground did Hull take a look at the pictures he’d shot. Several were quite good as witnessed here.
Hull is a retired IBM engineer who lives in the Crooked Creek subdivision outside China Grove. His wife, Linda, is retired from a career teaching fifth-graders at Jackson Park Elementary in Kannapolis.
The couple’s involvement with owls began when representatives from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville brought injured birds of prey to Linda’s school to show.
The Hulls spoke with Rob Bierregaard, an instructor at UNC Charlotte who is heading a study where barred owls are being tracked around Charlotte.
The Hulls paid the $60 cost of materials for the owl box, then those involved in the study built it for them. It has been in the woods behind the Hulls’ house for five years.
Roger Hull said owls have nested in the box four of those five years, with at least one baby owl born every year they’ve been there.
“We occasionally hear them calling,” Hull said. “We enjoy having them around.”
He said he and his wife have seen the mother owl fly in carrying rabbits and small birds for her little ones to consume.
Hull said maintaining the owl house is a simple undertaking. He said he cleans the box and lines it with fresh pine straw every January.
The mother owl arrives in late February or early March and the baby (or babies, this is the first year that the brood has numbered more than one) is hatched shortly thereafter. Hull said the baby typically flies the coop in mid-May.
The box remains empty the rest of the year.
Hull said he doesn’t know if the mother owl that nests in the box is a repeat customer, or if a new bird occupies the box from one year to the next.
Bierregaard, the UNC Charlotte instructor, said there are more barred owls in and around Charlotte than most people realize.
According to Bierregaard, the number of barred owls in urban areas have been increasing for decades. He said the barred owl is the third-largest owl species in the United States.
“If you read about barred owls in the textbooks, it says they need large strands of old-growth forest to survive,” Bierregaard said. “Either the barred owls in Charlotte haven’t read that book or the book is wrong, because they are really here and apparently doing quite well.”
Bierregaard’s study has found and monitored more than 200 nesting attempts by 78 different pairs in both suburban Charlotte and the surrounding countryside. The project began when Bierregaard considered doing a study of barn owls, which live in the country, as a thesis project for a graduate student.
A team of volunteers was necessary to support the effort and they all lived in the city ó a long drive from the proposed rural study sites.
In order to accommodate the volunteers, the researchers pragmatically changed the target species and put up nest boxes in the wooded suburban neighborhood where the volunteers lived. Barred owls, they discovered, were common there.
Hull said that the first year he had an owl box in his yard, volunteers with Bierregaard’s group tagged the baby in order to monitor its travel.
But he said they haven’t returned to band any baby owls since, apparently having more than they can handle in monitoring the owls setting up residence in and around Charlotte.