Thursday, August 26, 2004

Owls culprits in cat deaths


Four thriving in overgrown Covington lot

By Travis Gettys
Enquirer contributor

COVINGTON - Four owls nested this spring in a vacant and overgrown lot behind Kirk Fightmaster's east Covington home, and it wasn't long before some cats turned up missing.

"Some kids from the neighborhood found pieces of them," said Fightmaster, who lives on the 1800 block of Maryland Avenue.

At first, neighbors blamed coyotes, and some wondered if the cats had been killed as part of a ritual sacrifice, but Fightmaster discovered the culprits as he watched the owls hunting.

"I haven't seen any rabbits in a while," Fightmaster said. "I usually have them in my garden, but I haven't had any problem with them (lately)."

Fightmaster said the owls are nearly 2 feet tall with a wingspan twice that, and have speckled bodies and a crowned head.

The description matches that of the great horned owl, the largest of three species of owls most common to this area, although they usually are only half that size, said Dr. Tom Sproat, a biology professor at Northern Kentucky University.

The birds thrive along river corridors, where they can roost in hollow trees, Sproat said, but sometimes desperate owls will nest in chimneys or in the rafters of abandoned buildings.

Like many animals, owls have taken an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approach to people, who have expanded their territory into wooded areas once inhabited by only wildlife.

"Owls adapt very well to a human suburban habitat," Sproat said. "They go through backyards, taking small mammals - whatever's available - (and) they have been known to take stray cats."

Most pets larger than a Chihuahua or dachshund are probably safe, Sproat said, because owls tend to prey on small animals that are also foraging for food.

"Cats that tend to wander a little more" could be in danger, Sproat said. "As long as the cat just goes in the backyard and comes back in, it should be fine."

The owls - two large ones and a pair of smaller ones - become active at dusk, Fightmaster said, when they begin hopping from house to house and emitting what he described as "an awful, awful screech."

"They screech so insanely that you think, 'Did somebody shoot that bird?' " Fightmaster said.

Adult owls tend to be solitary, Sproat said, but a nest of young owls will stick together until they strike out on their own in mid-summer, when they begin claiming their own territory.

To make sure no other owls live nearby, young owls will call out in voices that crack due to changing hormones, which Sproat said explains the unusual sounds Fightmaster heard.




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