Owl and Squirrel

No, this item is not a takeoff on Rocky and Bullwinkle, my favorite cartoon characters.  It has to do with the curious relationship between Burrowing Owls and Ground Squirrels.  Burrowing Owls in fact rarely if ever burrow.  Burrowing is a lot of work, and they’re not very well equipped for it.  I mean, look at their feet.  Good enough for scratching, but not good for moving a lot of dirt fast.  Plus, there’s the disadvantage of being a biped.  Only one foot can dig at a time; the other has to keep the bird from falling over.  That’s where the Ground Squirrels come in.  They can spread their paws and make the dirt fly.  They can dig with two front claws while the two rear legs keep them stabilized.  Big advantage!

So, the owls have come to an arrangement with the squirrels.  Some people call it a symbiosis.  But wait.  Symbiosis implies that both sides gain something from the deal.  The actual deal is that the owls, if it suits them, move into the Ground Squirrel burrows and boot the squirrels out.  It’s a homeowner’s nightmare: you work and work to build a nice home for yourself and your family, and along comes this feathered thug from the north, kicks you out, and squats in your home for the six winter months, leaving a mess.

OK, in the human world that would lead to resentment, maybe even war.  But how is it in the animal world?  Do the squirrels gang up on the owls and try to kick them out, the way that American Crows gang up on Red-Tailed Hawks and other raptors, or the way that Red-winged Blackbirds rise and drive away raiding American Crows?

I saw one brief encounter between Owl and Squirrel earlier.  My October 21 video, near the end, shows a squirrel approaching the owl, probably out of curiosity, and the owl puffing up into “I’m very big and could eat you” modality.  In actual fact, squirrels are much bigger than anything that Burrowing Owls can kill and eat.  Caterpillars and beetles, maybe a lame sparrow now and then, are about the size of the owl’s diet.  But the squirrel in this encounter didn’t push it.  It just winked (maybe) and withdrew.

Today I had the good luck to see and film other owl-squirrel encounters.  The “Owl on the Rocks” that I first spotted on the northeast rip-rap on December 6, and that has occupied the exact same spot almost daily ever since, had a visit from one and then two Ground Squirrels this morning.  If you can call a “visit” a meeting where the two parties totally ignore one another.  It’s as if both sides had their heads in their cellphones.  At the squirrel’s first approach, the owl flicks it one glance, a fraction of a second.  Then nothing.  Squirrel crosses rock directly in front of owl, no reaction.  Squirrel noses around in dead bush directly behind owl, inches away.  Owl doesn’t turn around.  Two squirrels chase each other on rock directly in front of owl.  No reaction.  Squirrel bellies up to rock in front of owl, quiet.  No interest from owl.  It’s as if they don’t see each other.  Or as if they’re members of a family where the owl is a parent and the squirrels are rambunctious kids that can be ignored.

There may be special reasons for this peaceful modus vivendi.  This particular owl seems to spend most of its day in that same spot on the rip-rap, and not in a burrow.  An owl — no way to know whether it was this one or another — was spotted about a month ago, and then again on November 25, and a third time on December 4, on or partly in a burrow in the grassy area above the rip-rap, but only for one or two days in each case, mostly in bad weather  And, importantly, it wasn’t squirrels but a pair of Lepus californicus — Black-tailed Jackrabbits — that built this particular burrow just south of the big patch of iceplant.  Squirrels have also been seen scrambling into this burrow, but they couldn’t have the same proprietary feeling about it as if they’d dug it themselves.  So they might not mind so much sharing it now and then.

It may also be that the squirrels take a long term view of things.  They’re here all year, and they have a nearby network of hundreds if not thousands of inlaws, cousins, and other relations that they could move in with, if need be.  The owls are short-timers.  Most of the owls we’ve seen this winter stayed only a day or two.  The “Owl on the Rocks” probably holds the long time residence record for this year, along with another owl that stayed on a rock on the north side for just over a week.  The owls are refugees from frost, snow, and ice.  The owls have no family here, no avian support systems.  So, why should the squirrels get their knickers in a knot?

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