Owl Cam
The Watch Owl at Work;

Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson
or, Whoo Will Enrapt the Raptors?


April - July 2001

Bright-eyed fruit-raptors

Boysenberry trellises Bright-eyed fruit-raptors descended from pterosaurs flit overhead. Their calls, musical or harsh or various according to their kind, fill the air. Mockingbirds, bluejays, doves, and assorted other airborne lovers of fresh fruit patrol the skies, watching, waiting.

The boysenberry canes are bursting with bright green leaves and overflowing the square of low trellises behind the old flagstone barbecue. The canes were pruned and the trellis ground weeded early in the season. There will be a bumper crop of boysenberries this year; judging by the total of white flowers and the green berries already taking shape, as least as many berries coming as the two best previous years put together.

Nearby is a baby peach tree, new-planted here this year and only about five feet tall. This little tree has two fruit-bearing branches grafted as a fork onto its root stock: Desert Gold, a peach varietal which ripens early in Spring; and Mid-Pride, a larger rosier fruit which ripens about a month later.

The birdbath on a ledge atop the stone barbecue is a common destination for all sorts of post-pterosaurs. While they're drinking and twittering sociably, splashing off the dust of seventy million years of hungrily obscure evolution, they also brightly eye the boysenberry thicket and the new little peach tree not far beyond, and discuss the prospects.

Canine defense against birds

Birds on wire Prominent among the defensive team are the Golden Cultivator dogs. These happy garden workers, denied their bred-in hunting-companion targets of ducks and pheasants, keep in practice by retrieving chunks of firewood from the woodpiles, rocks from the rockpile, and scattering them athwart the paths. When not busily cultivating the lawn or rooting out decorative plants, the Golden Cultivators do occasionally stick their noses into the boysenberry thicket in search of useful bug-eating lizards.

I set a square of small trellises around the peach tree to fence it from helpful canine cultivation. Boysenberry canes, like other brambleberries, provide their own defense of small but very numerous thorns which sooner or later penetrate the attention even of Golden Cultivators hot on the trail of lizards.

The dogs generally ignore birds, although they are quite intrigued by springtime peeping and cheeping from nests above their reach.

An owl joins the guardians

So I have acquired an owl, and set it to guard the ripening fruit.

This watch-owl is made of plastic, which suggests certain virtues and failings. His coloring is mostly brown, his surface textured to suggest feathers over strong folded wings. His eyes are bright yellow with dark pupils. He is about a foot tall, with pointed owl-ears and a hooked beak: a strong silhouette to the flitting legions of prey, a signal bred into their hollow bones to stay away.

The owl's first perch is on a pole next to the baby peach tree. The watch-owl is going to have to work two ripening shifts of several weeks each, first to protect the Desert Gold micro-crop on the eastern branches, and later the Mid-Pride larger-fruit but even-more-micro crop on the western branches.

Advice and fruit
Hang a plastic snake near the fruit. — DHF

I followed this advice. Also acquired a net to drape over the peach tree.

Later:  The Desert Gold peaches are coming in fine. Not numerous, but tasty. Once a day or so, when I walk past the owl, I rotate him or move him to a pole-tip on the other side of the tree. This demonstrates vigilance to potential victims.

Why a net? Do I look like a gladiator? — The Owl

Later:  Plenty of boysenberries coming in now. I limit myself to twenty or twenty-five berries per visit to the thicket, several times a day. The Mid-Pride branch of the peach tree seems to be growing heartily now, catching up... Unfortunately some of the birdbrains are getting wise to the owl. He's a peaceable peacekeeper, so has snatched and shredded none of the smaller but livelier avifauna.

You know the saying about the good watch dog? It's a lot like your owl. They watch the thieves come, then they watch them go. — ALC
Where do you want me to dig next? — a Golden Cultivator dog
Virtues of the watch-owl

Well, the watch-owl does have certain virtues:

  1. low operating cost
  2. always vigilant
  3. cannot be bribed
  4. cannot be distracted
  5. does not eat peaches or berries
  6. works unjealously in consort with snake and netting

Later:  The garden-guardian owl with his bright eyes and fixed bird-devouring stare has moved to the boysenberry patch. Still hasn't caught any birds, but I think his presence helps — atop a trellis nestled right amid arcs of leafy green canes. Fewer purple bird-droppings on the ground this year, so likely fewer berries getting into the fruit-raptors. The birdbrains are doubtful... but I reckon it's like snatching a hamburger out of the paw of a sleeping bear. The bear hasn't moved since you've been watching — but is a meal worth your life? Better wait a while longer...

Really a lot of fine boysenberries this year.

If you see bird-droppings on your owl, the other birds are not respecting him. — WRP

Later:  The record boysenberry season is over, so I've reassigned the plastic watch-owl back to a perch by the little peach tree. He did a good job for the berries, and is again watching the peaches alertly as the even smaller second-phase crop ripens: several Mid-Pride peaches.

That gray plastic snake hanging around is not much help. — The Owl
A webcam for the owl?

RWF with book and snake Later:  I'm thinking of installing a mini-camera in the owl, and auto-loading snapshots of what the owl sees onto the Internet. This is so exciting that a five-second refresh rate would be appropriate. "Watch a mockingbird fly near the boysenberry thicket! Oooh... Watch it fly on past! Wait... Wait... Watch a bluejay fly near..."

Then I'll sell ads on the Owl Cam website, the owl will become famous and I'll get rich. (He works cheap — it's the thrill of the hunt.) Then there's the marketing tie-ins like plastic owl-toys, flight-pursuit T-shirts, thoughtful education games like Count-the-Peaches, plastic boysenberries, and so on. (Do you have a complete set of this year's crop of plastic boysenberries? We offer the must-have Owl Cam Berry Album...") Framed snapshots from the Owl Cam showing the well-protected boysenberry thicket, and autographed by The Owl. (Kind of self-reflexive, making plastic owl-toys in imitation of a plastic owl, but it's all in good berry-taste, kids.)

Sounds like a real hoot. — RGM

I'd like to be the first subscriber to Owl Cam. — ALC

I do not need falconry lessons. — The Owl

Later:  The several Mid-Pride peaches came in nicely: large, red-tinged, and sweet.

Rest; and new horizons of fruit

Later:  The watch-owl is taking a break after his successful stint guarding the boysenberries and peaches. I haven't sprung the telecamera-fame option yet; don't want him to start feathering his nest too soon. After the owl's well-earned rest, I'd better talk to him about the fig tree.


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

Photos by RWF, WRF.

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