Name a suburban predator that acts by night, has a crushing grip and an unflinching stare and evades crime reports. An acknowledged killer, it is common to backyards in Hamilton and Wenham and is generally welcomed.
The answer - an owl.
“You can find them looking in knot holes (of trees),” says ornithologist Jim Berry of Ipswich, who offhand knows the whereabouts of two owls locally.
These bantam-sized owls with prominent ear-tufts sport plumage of one of two color phases - red or grey. Chester, a red one, lives in a sugar maple outside Fred and Gay Hammond’s house in Hamilton.
“We named him Chester because of his chest,” said Gay, imitating the way the bird sits back on his perch with his face nearly hidden by fluffed feathers.
Chester’s age is unknown but he’s been the Hammond’s neighbor for sometime.
“Four years ago we had tree work done,” said Gay. “We had a tree cut down right next to him.”
“It was the tree guy who told us we had an owl,” added Fred.
The incriminating evidence found by their arborist, David Burch, beneath the maple was pellets of rodent bones and teeth wrapped in fur.
On Burch’s recommendation, the Hammonds opted to tread lightly out of respect for the owl. Instead of having Burch fell the tree as initially planned, they gave the green light to selectively prune its dead branches. To everyone’s surprise and relief, the whine of the chain saw had no affect on Chester. Throughout the extensive work the little owl stayed put.
But he does come and go.
“He flies off at dusk,” said Gay.
Though Chester’s business at night is more difficult to track, it’s likely he works close to home.
“Just a few days ago while out in the garden I walked right up to something and heard a flap,” said Fred, surmising that it was the owl.
Screech owls, like all owls native to New England’s, are non-migratory and generally choose one mate for life, according to Berry.
Great horned owls, the largest species, will help themselves to any existing nest that pleases them - those of crows, hawks, great blue herons and even squirrels.
“Because they can,” said Berry.
Barred owls and the smaller screech owls like to nest in tree hollows but will nest in boxes with holes big enough.
Biologists observe that in New England screech owls mate from February to March and in the wild have a lifespan of about six years.
Owls are different than crows, the extrovert of the bird-world that are impossible to miss. Disturbing the peace at the first crack of dawn until sunset, crows make their presence and that of others known.
Thanks to crows, hawks - be they sharp-shinned or red-tailed - have little hope of anonymity. Gliding across a bright sky, hawks present the black jokesters an easy target.
Owls keep a lower profile by hiding in hollows or disguising themselves as tree parts. But they are more abundant than it would seem. Screech owls in particular are fairy easy to locate.
The Hammonds know little about Chester’s personal life but they do hear his calls answered in the night.
“We hear some calling but that’s all I can tell you,” said Fred of the owl’s affairs.
Jim Berry served as the Essex County coordinator for the 2nd Massachusetts Audubon Breeding Bird Atlas project.