Monday, October 25, 2010

Whooo's awake? Me tooo!

Red-tailed Hawk launches from the antenna on the water tower. AMcC

Occasionally people ask me, “What is that thing?” or, “Looks like a spaceship—hope it doesn’t land!” Living under the city water tower has its ups and downs. It’s easy for people to find my house. It’s provided many would-be comedians with a topic. And though the tower and surrounding fence could best be described as—well—unattractive, it’s not like living under a roller coaster.

Last week, construction equipment rattled on to my block, preparing to build a new water tower and tear down the old one. That’s prompted me to review some stories about my quiet, green neighbor over the last 25 year. When I first moved in an American Kestrel claimed the structure. As long as he was around, pigeons stayed away. A persistent Mockingbird owned it for awhile. For many summers, joints of the steel girders were home to a colony of Common Grackles. With 30 or so noisy grackles, pretty much everything stayed away. One spring morning I stepped outside to hear the crows screaming as they dived onto the top of the tower. Finally I saw what they were screaming about. A Turkey Vulture had landed on the dome to warm its six-foot wingspan in the morning sun.

Red-tail overlooks construction AMcC
In the summer of 2009, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks nested nearby in the remnants of woods. Every day one or both of the parents would guard the territory, perched on the plastic cover over cell phone antennas mounted on the catwalk. It occurred to me that for them, the tower is a cliff; the antenna, a tall pine balanced on the edge. An artificial cliff is less scenic to humans, but for birds, it functions like the real thing.

A few years back, I dragged my neighbor out of bed to see two Great Horned Owls perched on the railing of the water tower. As we watched, sharing a pair of binoculars—yes, you can see some things through binoculars at night—one of the owls turned his back to us, pitched up his tail, and yelled into the side of the tank, “WHOOO’s awake? Me TOOOO!” The hoots boomed and echoed—the structure amplified his call as if it were a canyon! Hopping from girder to strut and back, he launched into an extended concert that certainly impressed us. I hope his lady friend felt the same.

Since that night, many Great Horned Owls have made their presence known, usually in fall or January. This year though, I’ve seen a Great Horned perched on the antenna almost every night since early May. Usually she is silent—the female’s voice is a bit higher and I suspect my horned neighbor is a female. Every night the dogs and I step out with the binoculars and check the antennas. If the moon isn’t too bright, she’ll be there. Sometimes she’ll flash her bright white under throat at us.

The removal of the tower will be good for my garden, allowing more southern light. The new tower will be just far enough west to cast its disk-shaped shadow on someone else’s yard. I don’t know what effect the construction/destruction of water towers will have on local wildlife. I’m hoping against hope they won’t remove the only trees on the property—3 mature white pines, beloved by grackles, goldfinches, and owls alike. 


  1. Anne,
    What a terrific story!!! Loved it and the photo. I'm impressed and it was great to read bout your experiences. Ain't wildlife grand?????

  2. Hi Nicole! We have Long-eared Owls in our area occasionally but they are very seldom seen. When a birder finds one, he or she tries to put the word out to other St. Louis Missouri birders. People will drive a long way to see it. I've only seen them once and I've never heard one. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Nature is grand, Julia! It always cheers me up to watch birds and other critters, especially when they're talking/singing/ or hooting to one another. It's fun too if your camera is handy and you can snap a shot that tells a bit of a story.

  4. Great to see you found some GOOD unintended human impacts to the natural world!

  5. Just a little something to balance out climate change, oil spills, and habitat destruction. Thanks for your comment!