Doodlebugs and a Barn Owl: Remembering Family Pets

Ann begins today’s blog by writing about the great horned owls we hear in our neighborhood almost nightly.  Thinking about these amazing nighttime hunters of mice and rats brought to mind my childhood fascination with another wild creature – the doodlebug.

Proof that it was indeed great horned owls hooting near us was provided by my Merlin Bird ID app with sound recognition. I love this app (and it’s free)

The connection between owls and doodlebugs is not as far fetched as you may think. Both are ferocious carnivores in their own way. But more importantly, both were family “pets” at one time. Allow me to elaborate a bit, beginning with doodlebugs.

It was probably while I was in grammar school that I learned that all of those funny little squiggles and pits I often came across in sandy soil were made by creatures called doodlebugs. If you scooped up a handful of the soil from under a pit and were lucky you could feel something tickling your hand. That something was a doodlebug, better known as an antlion.

As kids are wont to do, when I was about 11 or 12 I decided to bring some antlions home to keep as “pets.” I put some sandy soil in a shallow box and gently added my new tenants to their digs (literally speaking). Sure enough, my little guys got right to work and created neat little pits. I knew that antlions dine mostly on unsuspecting ants that fall into their pits, so I kept a glass jar well supplied with ants that I would find in the neighborhood. Most of the time the ants fell into the pits accidentally on purpose, if you get my drift.

(As an aside, I’m not alone in treating antlions as pets. AntlionFarms.com claims that “Antlions are some of the coolest insects around. When you have an ant lion for a pet, you get a front row seat to one of nature’s wildest battles”).

Smithsonian Video of antlions at work. Warning: viewer discretion advised – not for the squeamish. “Ferocious carnivores” may be too tame.

I must confess that I found it both disturbing and exciting to watch the pitched battles between the ants and my antlions. Although the ants sometimes managed to escape, most of the time the antlion successfully paralyzed the ant and sucked out its juices, tossing the spent body out of the pit. Great stuff for an 12-year old and probably more brutally graphic than what kids can find on video games today.

I’m not the only one in my family to have brought home “alternative” pets. My brother Dan, who is 14 years younger than I, raised a barn owl. He was about the same age as I was when I had my antlions. Because I never had the opportunity to meet his owl – at that time I was serving my time in the army – I called him and asked him to tell me more about his owl for our blog.  

Baby barn owls (Internet photo)

He told me that when he was about 12 he and a friend found two baby owls which had fallen out of their nests into a hay loft. He described them as two tiny white fluffballs. He and his friend each took an owl home to to see if they could save it.  His friend’s owl didn’t survive but Dan’s did, largely because he found material in the library on how to raise owls (this was long before the Internet). He named his owl OwlBert.

As you can see by Dan’s photos, OwlBert grew from a fluffball to be quite a specimen.  Evidently, OlwBert turned out to be a one-person owl. Whenever Dan was near the owl would coo, but when our dad was on the scene OwlBert would hiss. I’m envious; not one of my antlions ever seemed partial to me.

Dan’s goal was to raise OwlBert to be able to fend for himself when he was released back to the wild.  That meant that OwlBert had to be taught how to hunt.  I asked Dan how he did that. He didn’t go into great detail but did say that it involved live mice and some string (frankly, I’m glad he spared me the details).

OwlBert, my brother’s barn owl

Dan trained OwlBert to land on his gloved hand like you see falconers do. Owls hunt at night so Dan had to work with OwlBert when it was dark. This turned out to be a particular problem due to the fact that owls have specialized feathers that allow them to fly nearly silently (here’s a link to AskNature.com for the fascinating details). As a result, OwlBert would often suddenly and painfully land on Dan’s unprotected shoulder before Dan could get his gloved hand up.  He said that he still has scars on his shoulder.

When he thought that OwlBert was ready, Dan released him in an olive grove on a large ranch outside of Chino. Although he didn’t say so, I’m sure that was a bittersweet moment for him. I can say this because I know how bittersweet is was for me when my beloved ferocious antlions morphed into delicate lacewings and flew away.

5 Comments

  1. David Ewing says:

    The last time I was in Guanajuato my host told me there was a deadly creature around there that was half scorpion and half spider. It turns out he was referring to what are called by some “camel spiders” or “wind scorpions,” and though they can bite, they are not venomous or dangerous to human beings. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solifugae. Apparently, soldiers in desert regions have captured these and set them to fight with one another or with some other creature, like a scorpion. And at least some of them thought they were dangerous to people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camel_Spiders_(film). As far as I knew we didn’t have these around Farmington, NM, where I grew up, but we had another creature we called “Earth Baby” or “Child of the Earth,” which we thought was deadly and looks a little like them. It also can bite but is not poisonous. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerusalem_cricket. And of course we also had Ant Lions and played with them, too. Bugs!

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    • theRaggedys says:

      I never had the pleasure of running into a “camel spider” when we were in Guanajuato a number of years ago. They would certainly make my doodle bugs seem like kittens. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Jerusalem crickets (which I knew as “potato bugs”) fascinated me as a kid. I didn’t mention that an older neighborhood boy would build an “arena” in the dirt and stage battles between a potato bug and a bunch of what we called red ants. It was pretty violent, but we younger kids thought that it was pretty cool.

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  2. Cintsy Simon says:

    Nasty antlion video (yet I watched it through). Fascinating. Wishing the best for OwlBert’s long and happy life. Beautiful creature. How cool to be a 12 year old boy with so much at his fingertips.

    Like

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