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Central Park Welcomes Five New Screech Owls

A decade ago when biologist Robert DeCandido, PhD wanted to reintroduced Eastern Screech Owls to Central Park, birders argued over whether they would face a grim death or be so successful they’d devour all the songbirds. Fast forward 11 years and now the tiny owls have quietly established a population up in the North Woods. So that when wildlife rehabber (and fireman) Bobby Horvath released five screech owls Saturday, everyone had come around to welcoming the three gray juveniles and two reds (one adult and one juvenile).

Local bloggers like Gothamist and fantastic wildlife photographer Bruce Yolton’s Urban Hawks were just thrilled.

(Photo of Dr. Robert “Birding Bob” DeCandido and a the adult red owl courtesy of bird photographer Deborah Allen)

DeCandido, better known as Birding Bob, says he saw the two youngest owls hanging out together on Sunday. None of the birds were related and they were of different ages, but he would still expect to see some sticking together, at least for a while. Yolton says that the owls at least won’t face the threat of great-horned owls that live on Long Island. DeCandido points out that there aren’t too many competitors of the same species in the park–and that now the army of wildlife photographers will be able to track them.

DeCandido leads tours in the park so New Yorkers can get a glimpse of the park’s owl residents. (I’ve gone on a few and they’re great–even when you don’t get to see the owls.)

Still, he says, most aren’t going to make it. People always underestimate how few animals surivive in the wild. The mortality rate for Eastern Screech Owls raised by their parents is 80%. And it’s even worse for those raised by humans and released in the park: 89%. So, that’s why DeCandido wants to release as many as possible. In 2002, when he still worked for the parks department, he released 33. You never know which will succeed and breed. One red-phased (that is, red-colored) one released last fall by Horvath already mated.

The park and their upbringing make it harder for the owls–which were, of course, once native to Manhattan and the park. “From my perspective as biologist, once they have enough food, they need sufficient territory with enough tree cavities,” DeCandido says. The problem arises when they want to nest and gray squirrels are poking their heads in–and possibly eating eggs. “The other wild card is raccoons,” he says. “We don’t know what their effect is on nesting.”

(Photo of a red-phase Eastern Screech owl in Central park in 2008 by Flickr’s Robert rbs10025)

The young ones are also a bit surprised by all the songbirds mobbing them, he says. They should just sit still, back against a trunk. Instead they get spooked and fly–making more of a commotion and easier for the other birds to knock them down. But, they’re learning.

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