Caring for and Healing the Earth

Wild Animals & Birds

Care of Baby Owls

Kay McKeever (from The Ontario Naturalist)

We have all seen the robin busily feeding his active youngster on our lawns and in our gardens, but not many people have witnessed the young owl being fed openly, on the ground. Raptors have learned to make themselves scarce when man appears, and with good reason. Only a few misguided humans would shoot a robin, but there are still many idiots around who would shoot an owl or hawk. Whether for this or more ancient reasons, the parent owls seldom contest man’s approach to the youngster on the ground although their reputation for vigilance at the nest is most intimidating. Thus we see the parent owls hiding and waiting for the human intruder to pass, while the fledgling sits uncomprehending....

To the unthinking, or inexperienced person, chancing upon such a situation, the parent owls are assumed to have abandoned their young. With the noblest of intentions, the person interferes with the whole future life of an owlet by capturing it, under the mistaken notion that he is "saving it". In the last five years alone, we at the Owl Rehabilitation Research Foundation have been the dismayed recipients of over one hundred of these fledglings, all around four weeks of age, all uninjured, all in good flesh (i.e. well fed), and all taken from the wild because the parent owls were not actually with them when they were encountered. Furthermore, several days have usually elapsed before the owlet is admitted here. This delay plus the circuitous route to our premises have then effectively precluded our returning [the bird] to parental care.

How should the chance encounter really have been handled? Let's go back to the nesting area and look at the options.

If the owlet has developed to the point of being aware of his surroundings, with focused vision, and is able to remain upright and to move around - especially if he is able to lift both wings above his body in defence - do not approach the owl but instead leave the immediate area as quickly as possible. If you can afford half an hour of your time in the interests of the owlet's whole life, post yourself as far away as you can while still keeping the owl's vicinity in your general view - ideally with binoculars. Stand still, making no noise, and both watch and listen for activity near the baby. Usually the owlet will be making food cries or unhappy chittering sounds when he perceives that he is alone; many will seize the opportunity to hide behind something or climb up off the ground in this interval. If you cannot stay in the area for purposes of observation, try to make sure that someone returns in less than an hour's time to check on developments.

After this time lapse, if the owlet is still grounded, still very obvious and more or less in the same place, and there is no evidence of parents in attendance, you should examine the owlet itself. Gently but firmly, holding both feet above the toes, turn him on his back. Feel the long bones of his wings and legs for possible fracture and feel the connecting joints for gross swelling, such as would be caused by dislocation. Doubtless the owlet will be loudly protesting these indignities, but you will likely discern a special cry of pain if there is some problem. Gently pull open the wings and legs to full extension, and then watch how quickly and naturally they are drawn back and folded against the body.

The other test easily performed is to check for emaciation. This is best gauged by the amount of muscle mass on either side of the sternum. (Think of the keel bone down the middle of the breast of a chicken, from either side of which the white breast meat is cut.) If the sides of this keel of the sternum can be felt between the thumb and forefinger, as one would feel the sides of a blade, then the bird is indeed emaciated and has been without parental support for several days. Since parent owls do NOT abandon able-bodied fledgling young, the owl's plight suggests a terminal separation from his parents caused by external factors such as their deaths or recent heavy storms. Obviously, if he is to survive, he must be brought out to foster care.

If the only apparent problem is a certain degree of thinness, without evident weakness, give the owlet one more chance to make it in the wild. Set him up off the ground in the fork of a tree or tall shrub and vacate the area to watch or to return. Once off the ground, he may be left for several hours or even overnight, if necessary, but do ensure that someone goes back to check. Finding a thin owlet on the ground a second time, and making no effort to elevate himself above danger, is pretty indicative of the loss of the parents. However reluctantly, there is now a case for human intervention.

Any fracture or dislocation, or other obvious abnormality, is also just cause for bringing the owl out to professional attention. He will not survive without it, and the parent owls, sensing his disability, will no longer feed him. Bring the owl to your home, put him in a warm, dark, confined place (a big carton at room temperature) and contact a rehabilitation facility without delay. Nourishment for the owl, during the brief period before transfer to the centre, is a commonsense affair. Although small rodents, cut into appropriate sizes, are the ideal food, adequate sustenance can be provided by mincing raw, lean stewing beef and rolling the pieces in powdered eggshell.

Whether the owlet now briefly in your possession has already developed a safe sense of his own identity is a matter of age and some individual variation. At six weeks of age he may safely be considered to have imprinted on his own species and no longer be at risk in this critical matter of relationship formation.

We have been reviewing alternative actions for the person finding an early fledgling owl displaced from the nest or its adjacent elevation. Suppose now that the owl you have found is unquestionably a real infant, unable to stand alone or to focus his eyes, if indeed they are even open. The choices here are much simpler, if you feel it should not be left to die, as it surely will, you can - ideally - try to replace it in the nest it fell from, or you can - less ideally - take it with you to a foster situation.

Replacing the owl in the nest can entail some athletics if the nest is high, and some risk if the parent owls are of a large species and misinterpret the generous nature of the climb to the nest. But when possible, successful replacement is the most effective course of action from every standpoint. Assuming the parent owls are still in a period of response to food cries (usually maintained by other siblings in the nest), have no fear about acceptance of the replaced infant. Anything in the nest, making the right noise, will be fed! Of course, if the nest itself is destroyed or impossible of access - or if the nestling is visibly damaged - the options are to leave it to die or take it home.

It is important to understand, in the manipulation of nestling owls, that the phenomenon of imprinting is not in itself an aberration, but rather a natural phase of the young owl's social development; he attains the perception of his own species. Therefore, an owlet deprived of any visual animate "model" during the relationship formation stage is as poorly equipped to perform in a socially acceptable way with his own kind as if he were actually imprinted on an alien species. Raising the owl in a relationship vacuum (such as in a big box, with no view of other animate life) will not postpone imprinting until the right model is available since the phenomenon is specific to a certain time-phase in his development and will not occur once it has passed....

Unfortunately for baby owls, they are invariably appealing to the average human who encounters them in the woods or fields.

Some spring day, somewhere in the fields or woods, confronted by the irresistible ball of fluff, sitting so innocently in a rapacious world, each of us must weigh the alternatives for himself. On behalf of all owls everywhere, may I make this final plea? If you are not prepared to follow through and deal effectively with that tender life, leave it alone and let nature take its course.

For more information contact:
Katherine McKeever
The Owl Foundation
21st Street, RR 1
Vineland Station, Ontario, Canada  LOR 2EO
(905)562-5986   Fax (905) 562-7938


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