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Giving a hoot

By on July 26, 2021 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
After the nest of these baby great horned owls was destroyed by a storm, a wicker basket replacement home was placed in the notch of a tree, held in place by an old climbing rope. The babies are about four weeks old — one can hardly hold its head up.

Humans climb to the rescue after Mother Nature destroys nest of infant great horned owls

By Jill LaRue

Our story begins with the COVID epidemic.

Confined to home last spring, Tom and I had a little extra time on our hands, so we set out to locate the local great horned owl nest that has been used for years.

Once we found it, we were able to watch it from our upstairs window and various places throughout the neighborhood.

The eggs hatched and the two owlets began to grow. They became a source of neighborhood socialization, outside, socially distanced, as we met in the evenings with our telescopes and binoculars to watch the owl family.

It was so entertaining to observe the parents feeding the owlets, encouraging them as they fledged (left the nest), learned to fly, flapping their wings against the wind in the tall trees.

We learned so much about great horned owls.

First, they don’t build nests. Instead they use nests built by other birds, such as ravens and hawks. They may also nest in tree or rock cavities, man-made platforms, even rafters in an open barn.

They are very versatile nesters and hunt a variety of prey, requiring territories approximately 1.5 square miles for a nesting pair.

This winter, the nesting pair (we assumed it was the same pair) returned to what we perceived as now a ratty old nest. We enjoyed watching the eggs hatch and the owlets began to peek out of the nest. We watched them daily, often several times a day.

When they were about four to five weeks old we noticed the owlets sitting on a branch above their mother after a big windstorm. Their nest was gone. The next morning the owls were also gone.

With impending stormy weather, including more wind and snow, I located the owlets huddled in piles of leaves on the ground, 75 feet from the nest tree, both parents keeping watch over them.

Seeing the owlets on the ground with the extreme weather forecasted, we were sure they would not survive.

After consulting with a raptor rescue specialist, we built a temporary nest out of a wicker laundry basket, used a 12-foot orchard ladder to place the basket in a three-limbed crotch of a tree about 15 feet up, and secured the basket with old climbing rope.

Wearing ski helmets, goggles and heavy coats, Tom placed the near lifeless owlets in the makeshift nest, while I kept watch on the parents just overhead. They were snapping their bills as a warning.

Great horned owls can be very aggressive — we heard stories of people injured while rescuing or banding great horned owlets. We hoped that the parents would take care of them in the new nest.

As we watched from a neighbor’s backyard, the mother came down to inspect the owlets in the new nest just after we left. In the morning Mom was sitting on the nest, rimmed by snow, cold wind riffling her feathers.

As we watched the new nest through our telescopes several times a day, we observed one owlet very active almost immediately. We named it “Gym.” However, we had no sign that the second owlet was okay.

Carrie Laxson, Tom’s niece and a raptor rescue specialist with the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program, told us that sometimes baby owls sustain internal injuries during a fall from the nest. Owlets in the same nest can be separated in age by as much as a week, so maybe one was younger and less able to recover from exposure on the ground.

However, after about three days, owl number two woke up ravenous. We observed the mother heartily feeding it bits of a quail. We named it “Zoe,” the Greek word for “life.”

The baby great horned owlets grew in their makeshift nest — here about six to seven weeks old — under the very watchful eyes of the mother owl.

They grew so fast. Both parents were busy hunting to feed them.

We watched the owlets develop ear tufts (little teddy bear ears), so cute with their fuzzy grey heads and black mask faces. We enjoyed seeing them bopping around in the laundry basket nest, practice spreading their wings and flapping vigorously on the sides of the nest.

When the owlets were about seven weeks old, one of the owlets jumped, soared, or fell out of the nest. The next day the second one followed. This is normal. In fact it is called the “brancher stage.”

During this time, owlets are frequently found on the ground. Their talons are as big and as strong as they will ever be, so they practice flight by flapping their wings on tree branches, soaring out to the ground or lower tree branches, and then using strong talons and their beaks to climb back up.

The parents are never very far away and continue to feed them. We listened to the owlets’ begging calls through the night.

As their flight skills and balance improved over the next few weeks we heard them less. They eventually left the area with their parents to learn to hunt.

We all hope to enjoy them again next year. They keep the rodent population in check and we enjoy listening to them.

Their nest is gone, though, so we hope we can find a suitable site for a man-made nest that will be attractive to them.

Jill LaRue loves to be outside, learning about the amazing place we live, hiking, biking, bird watching and gardening.

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