In the woods, predators serve their own karma

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If mice and other small rodents knew fear, they would lead lives of constant desperation. Rather than live in fear, though, I think they survive through vigilance.

If they fail to concentrate on their surroundings, they simply don’t live very long.

From above, hawks and owls are constant threats. On the ground, they are on the menu of virtually every mammalian predator. Shrews, coyotes, foxes, bears, raccoons, weasels, mink, fishers, skunks, and bobcats eat small rodents regularly.

Because predators pursue small mammals relentlessly, small prey counter by breeding almost year-round. Deer mice and voles, for example, breed continuously from February through late October to maintain a relatively stable population.

Mice can bear as many as seven litters per year.

Screech-owl

If I were a small rodent, I’d probably dread the threat of screech-owls most of all. They are common, eat small mammals and birds almost exclusively, and hunt under the cover of darkness. And like most owls, they fly silently.

The soft edges of their flight feathers allow them to approach and attack without warning.

At least their victims never know what hits them. On a moonless night, a mouse may feel safe on the forest floor searching for food, but a fatal attack can come at any moment. When mammalian predators attack, there’s often at least a brief chase and a chance to escape. But when a screech-owl attacks, death comes quickly.

Keen vision, even in low light, and incredible hearing allow an owl to locate prey even from treetop perches.
It takes off and glides quickly downward toward its victim. As the owl nears its prey, it throws its feet forward, raises its wings, throws its head back, and opens its toes.

Each toe is armed with a icepick-like talon.

Immediately impaled

Upon impact, the toes close, and the talons impale the prey. One of the talons is certain to hit a vital organ, so death is usually instantaneous. If not, a quick bite to the head finishes the job. Presently, screech-owls are incubating clutches of four or five eggs.

After 26 days, the eggs hatch in late April or early May. The owlets remain in the nest for about a month, so parent screech-owls need many more meals during the nestling period.

Predator pressure on small mammals increases throughout the spring and early summer.

A screech-owl requires several tree cavities to conduct its daily business — one to eat in after making a kill, one to sleep in during the day, and one for the nest.

Immediately after making a kill, a screech-owl must quickly take its meal to its dining cavity.

A six-ounce screech-owl preoccupied with a fresh kill on the ground would be easy prey for a bobcat, fox or coyote. So screech-owls carry fresh kills immediately to a cavity to eat in peace or feed young.

I suspect earth-bound predators would be a minor threat to a screech-owl. They would just have to happen to be in the area when the owl made its kill.

Great horned owls, however, use their powerful eyes and ears to survey the woods from high perches. Their domain reaches as far as their eyes can see. And they have no qualms about eating smaller owls.

Taking a screech-owl that has just killed a mouse is like getting two meals for the price of one.

Sometimes a screech-owl’s hold on its prey may slip a bit after the kill, and it takes just a moment to get a better grip. BAM! That moment can be one moment too long.

Great horned owls kill with the same precision as their smaller cousins. Just as the screech-owl sailed in silently on the mouse, so too does the great horned owl sail in silently on the screech-owl.

And just as the mouse never knew what hit it, neither does the screech-owl. Its life fades to black in an instant. Life isn’t fair, especially in nature.

What goes around, comes around. Call it karma in the woods.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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