Belmont Addition residents Geyden and Barry Sage are the delighted landlords of an owl family. Their social media posts documenting the residents of their backyard owl house have brought joy to weary, pandemic-fatigued followers. It’s ironic, then, that it all came about because of a neighbor who apparently didn’t give a hoot.
Back in late summer/early fall, the Sages started to notice unusually high rodent activity in the backyard. They chalked it up to restaurant closures but were determined to nip it in the bud. “We made sure to remove all possible attractants and hiding spaces,” Geyden says, “and even stopped feeding the wild birds.”
Still, the rats persisted, so the Sages installed a camera, dubbed “Rat Cam,” with the goal of learning rodent patterns and behaviors. Were they ever surprised when they viewed footage. “Our cameras caught a neighbor throwing rotten fruit, chicken bones, peanut butter and bird food over the fence,” Geyden says.
The obvious question: Why? Geyden laughs. “That’s better covered in a book or a reality show.”
Confronted, the neighbor denied all knowledge, but the food flinging ceased immediately. Still, the Sages knew the rodents wouldn’t magically disappear. Eschewing traditional pesticides, they opted for a more natural approach: a predator. Geyden says she learned about this remedy through her training as a Texas Master Gardener. “When you have a pest that is hard to control, you introduce a predator,” she says.
Research led them to owls and they soon installed an owl house, purchased at the neighborhood Wild Birds Unlimited. The only modification was a small dowel Barry added to give the birds a perch near the entrance.
Shortly after The Big Freeze in February, they had their first owl sighting, a fellow they identified as an Eastern Screech Owl. A male owl poked his head out of the house and sunbathed all day. They decided to move the “Rat Cam” and install it up in the tree with the idea that the newly named “Owl Cam” would give them insight into owl behavior, timing for owlets, and owl diet — would the owls have the rats over for dinner?
Indeed they did. Within a couple of weeks, footage confirmed that a female had joined the male owl, who spent dusk until dawn every night hunting for prey and feeding the goods, including plenty of juicy rats, to the female who poked her head out each night, watching expectantly for the deliveries.
“We were surprised to see how hard he worked,” Geyden says. “He brought her garden snakes, rats bigger than could fit in the hole, birds, worms, lizards, moths and some sort of grub-looking bugs.”
The Sages’ rodent problem had disappeared.
By now, the female had joined her mate in the nightly hunt for prey. “Larger prey like birds and rats were sometimes taken apart on the branches and fed to the young in small bites,” say the non-squeamish Sages.
Along with controlling the pesky rodent population, the owls have been just plain entertaining for Geyden and Barry — and sometimes friends invited over for wine and owl watching. “The owls are not shy at all,” Geyden says. “This makes them great to watch and hear. At dusk, they perch on the tree and any other structure in the backyard and act like they own the place.” As night falls, the owls begin to fly, surveying the area. “They fly by very close to us and even perch around,” she says.
The owlets, too, pop their heads out, and on quiet nights can be heard practicing their screech call.
The Sages’ owl journey — which began bizarrely with peanut butter and chicken bones tossed into their yard — has become a source of joy.
Geyden says, “Sometimes when the neighbors throw you rotten lemons — grapefruits in this case — you ought to make lemonade.”
PATTI VINSON is a guest writer who has lived in East Dallas for more than 20 years. She’s written for the Advocate and Real Simple magazine.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.