Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Generalists

Last night, as I contemplated which generalist's story I would tell next, I heard a low-pitched, haunting sound coming through the sparse trees across the street. We have a train crossing a few miles from us, and I love the occasional whistle, especially on a chill and starry night. But this noise was not a train.

In my very suburban neighborhood, there are at least two Owls and they call to each other in the night. I'm pretty sure they are Barred Owls, although I haven't gotten a good look at them. Text books say that Barred Owls can only survive in "old-growth forests," but in the last few years, these owls have rewritten those text books. The largest population of Barred Owls currently inhabits the city of Charlotte, North Carolina. Scientists have tried to determine why and found a rather obvious answer, one the owls hit on years ago. A Barred Owl's preference for old-growth forests is two-fold. First the trees are mature enough to offer holes to nest in. Second, the dense upper canopy keeps the under canopy bare and stunted. Barred owls hunt by sight. They sit in a tree branch and wait for something to move under them. Little or no undergrowth helps in the owl's success, so an old-growth forest makes sense.

Now think of your well-established suburban/urban neighborhood. For our pleasure we line our streets with oaks and elms, watering and nurturing them for size and breadth of branches. Underneath these stately trees, we weekly mow our lawns, providing broad swaths of close-clipped sod. We also provide bird feeders full of seed, and well-mulched flower beds—enticements to small birds and rodents. You've got to think that when the Barred Owls were driven from the old-growth forests and winged their way into our cities, they must have been well pleased. I love having these owls as my neighbors. I'm sure they are helping to curb the rabbit and mice populations and they seem contented as I've heard them, off and on, over the last three years. What I love most about having them nearby, is that they add mystery to an otherwise very middleclass world.

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