WACO, Texas -- Dr. Fred Gehlbach is wearing his baseball cap turned backward, but the 74-year-old research biologist from Baylor is not trying to look cool.
He's protecting his bald spot and the back of his neck, just in case a male screech owl perched 10 feet away takes exception to Gehlbach handling of the owl's chicks.
The owl apparently decides Gehlbach is no threat. For more than 40 minutes, while a parade of neighbors and other onlookers view the suburban operation, the diminutive owl sits as still as the proverbial bump on a log, which it closely resembles. The veteran researcher knows the owl is watching his every move.
In fact, Gehlbach knows more about eastern screech owls than the birds know about themselves. He's been studying them in the Waco area for 43 years. That's the longest running bird research project in history.
The eastern screech owl is one of those rare, wild animals that's adapted nicely to the changes people have made in its natural habitat. That's one of the conclusions Gehlbach has reached.
Since his study of screech owls in rural and suburban areas began, Gehlbach has watched rural areas converted to suburban sprawl. The owls are still there. In fact, they seem to do better in suburbs than in the wilds of McClennan County.
"Screech owls that live in the suburbs have more food, more water and fewer enemies," said Gehlbach. "Like all owls, they are wonderful predators and eat a variety of insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals.
"In fact, they often catch cardinals at dusk, when the owls are just beginning to hunt, and again at dawn, when they're wrapping up their nightly hunt. If you have a bird feeder at your home, you know that cardinals are the first birds at the feeder in the morning and the last birds at the feeder in the evening."
Screech owls also pick birds off their night-time roost limbs, but Gehlbach's longtime research shows no evidence that the small raptors have any negative impact on prey species in their home range, usually about 10 acres this time of year, growing to 20 acres in the winter.
Despite screech owls being common almost everywhere in Texas, they are so unobtrusive that most humans don't realize they share the owl's habitat. Few people recognize the screech owl's subtle call which is nothing like a screech.
Gehlbach said most people think of an owl call as a hooting "who, who, who" sound, but the only Texas owl that makes that sound is the great horned owl, a bird that's more than twice the size of an eastern screech owl.
The screech owl's call is more of a melodious series of tremulous whistles. Gehlbach advises readers to Google the screech owl's call to find numerous websites where the sound can be heard.
When food is abundant, a screech owl male will sometimes mate with multiple females, the researcher said. Mating is the easy part. The hard part is feeding all those mouths, usually three or four chicks per nest. Until the offspring are fledged, the father does all the hunting.
Most familiar Texas owls:
--Eastern and western screech owls, small, discreet, about eight to 10 inches tall. They will nest readily in nesting boxes provided by humans.
--Great horned owl, the biggest Texas owl, named for its distinctive ear tufts that resemble horns. Great horned owls have a wingspan of 36 to 60 inches and kill prey as large as skunks, small dogs and house cats.
--Barred owl, the hoot owl of southern swamps, is common across most of central Texas, as well as east Texas. Its distinctive call sounds like "who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all."
--Barn owl, which commonly roosts and nests in barns, other outbuildings or deer blinds. Its distinctive, white, heart-shaped face gives it the nickname "monkey-faced owl".
Two things Fred Gehlbach wants you to know about owls:
--They are very beneficial to humans. Their diet includes pests like rats and mice.
--They are indicators of the nocturnal wildlife that requires conservation. Most people think of animals seen during daylight hours, said Gehlbach, but most wildlife is more active at night than during the day.