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Nature & You: Is the wise old owl a fact or myth?

Three sets of eyes from baby screech owls peer down from a walnut tree. [Oklahoman Archives Photo]
Three sets of eyes from baby screech owls peer down from a walnut tree. [Oklahoman Archives Photo]

This is a story about two of Ma Nature's fascinating creatures that both live in central Oklahoma. 

One is the screech-owl, a tiny feathered sprite that is about the same size as the clenched fist of an adult human's hand. The other creature in this story is a snake that is so small (when fully mature) that it approximates the length and diameter of your standard No. 2 graphite ("lead") pencil. This minuscule reptile is the Great Plains threadsnake.

The owl can fly; the snake cannot.

Add to that, the fact that this snake is not adept at climbing trees.

That is what has scientists scratching their noggins. Researchers regularly find these snakes thriving in the debris on the floor of the hollow tree nests of the tiny owls.

Some scientists insist the parent owls purposely bring live snakes to their homes so the snakes can gobble up insects that would otherwise harm the health and development of the owl babies. The scientists in the other camp cry: "LIAR!  LIAR!  PANTS ON FIRE!" This second group of researchers insist the snakes are brought to the nest as food for the baby owls but that the snakes manage to wiggle free and never get dined upon.

Here is the rub: Scientists have done their studies, and it is unmistakably clear that nests with no bothersome insects are occupied by healthy, fast-developing young owls. These insect-free nests are the ones that support a healthy population of the tiny snakes. Just the opposite outcomes are the result of those owl nests that do not play host to a few of the insect-munching snakes. 

Just how smart are the parent owls? Are they doing something on purpose? Or is it more accurate to portray these situations as purely coincidental and subject to accident?

I'll stick my neck out here. From the data that I have seen, I am inclined to believe the parent owls are purposely putting insect-munching snakes in the tree cavities where they intend to raise healthy, thriving offspring.

Call me a starry-eyed fool, if you must, but I'd bet a dollar to a doughnut that this is what is going on.

Neil Garrison

Neil Garrison is an outdoor nature enthusiast. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University/Stillwater; he earned a B.S. degree in Wildlife Ecology. Prior to his 2009 retirement, he was the Naturalist at a central Oklahoma nature center for 30... Read more ›