Owl down!

Peace River Wildlife Center took in our first young great horned owl of the year this week.  Unfortunately it probably won’t be our last.  They should issue a roll of duct tape when they send mommy great horned owls home from the maternity ward.  Those babies just can’t seem to stay in the nest.

And it doesn’t help that these large owls prefer to nest at the top of the tallest tree in the area.  It’s not like they build their own nests there.  They are squatters.  They “borrow” a nest used by another bird the previous year.  Since they breed fairly early in the season, they often get first dibs on the nicest real estate.

In this case, these owls did not choose wisely.  By the time their babies were a few weeks old, the nest was gone.  We don’t know if a storm blew it apart or it was just too flimsy for such a large family, but when we got there to try to return the fallen baby, there was no sign of the nest.  Undaunted, we simply provided a nest substitute (a suitably sized wicker basket) and proceeded according to the plan.

How do these young birds get into such trouble?  The average incubation time for the eggs is approximately 30 days.  From the first week, the hatchlings will practically double in size each day.  At about 6 weeks of age, they start perching on the edge of the nest and walking out onto nearby branches (this is called branching).  Within the next week or two, the fledglings will begin to test their capabilities of flight.

Many will stumble and end up on the ground.  If they are not hurt and there is no imminent danger, the parents will care for these misplaced babies for a few days until their strengthening wings enable them to flutter well enough to get back up into the lower branches of the tree.

A young great horned owl waiting to be renested.
A young great horned owl waiting to be renested.

The youngster we admitted this week is a branchling.  His sibling was in place near the top of a very tall pine tree when we arrived to reunite the baby with his family.  After a few minutes of preparation, the mother flew in to observe our antics.  She was not impressed, but she did keep her distance, sitting at the top of a nearby tree, watching our progress.

I remained in the relative safety of having my feet firmly planted on the ground, while my able-bodied assistant climbed the tree to return the bird.  Okay, so I’m no Marlin Perkins and Kevin is not my assistant, but he is quite able-bodied.  Kevin Barton is the co-founder and lead rehabber at Wildlife Center of Venice, and he and his staff are invaluable partners to PRWC.

This self-professed Peter Pan would rather be climbing trees and “playing” with animals than sitting in an office shuffling paperwork.  Since I get dizzy on 3 inch heels, Kevin handles the high elevations while I talk to the adoring crowds he attracts while engaged in his aerial endeavors.

Kevin shimmied halfway up the tree, not wanting to get too close to the other baby and risk spooking it and having it fall also.  While he got into place, I nestled the owlet into a pillowcase and knotted the top.  Once the nest basket was secured to a branch, Kevin threw a line down to me.  I tied the rope to the pillowcase and he raised the bird up, removed it from the case, and placed it in the basket.  Of course, before Kevin was even back on the ground, the young owl was perching precariously on the edge of the basket.

As of this writing, the baby has stayed in his tree, which is not always the case.  Sometimes we must return the same baby to the nest or tree two or three times before he stays put or gets old enough to manage on his own.  We have even had incidents where the bird beats Kevin to the ground.  At last sighting, our little adventurer was even higher in the tree, sitting alongside his sibling.

Occasionally we have a youngster that simply will not stay in his tree.  In those instances, or if the baby was injured in the fall or by a predator on the ground, we will keep the baby and raise it in captivity.  Here is where our non-releasable resident birds really earn their keep.

PRWC's resident great horned owls foster displaced youngsters.
PRWC’s resident great horned owls foster displaced youngsters.

Each year, our resident great horned owls are tasked with raising babies that were unable to be returned to their homes.  The newly formed family is taken off display and the foster parents feed and care for the youngsters.  They teach them how and what to eat in the wild and how to hunt.

Most importantly, they keep the young owls from getting imprinted or habituated to people.  If the birds associate people with food, or lose their innate mistrust of people, they will not be able to survive in the wild and cannot be released.  When these babies are old enough and have the proper skills to survive in the wild, they are released back in to the area from which they were rescued.

PRWC’s glove-trained education great horned owl, Bella, is an example of what can happen when a young raptor is raised improperly.  She was raised at another facility and accidentally imprinted.  When they tried to release her, she flew to a crowded neighborhood and swooped down on people expecting them to feed her.  The terrified occupants in the area thought they were in an odd Hitchcock remake as a bird with a four-foot wingspan was dive-bombing them.  After she was caught, Bella was transferred to PRWC where she was glove-trained and is now one of our most popular education ambassadors.  No duct tape required.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM