Thursday, February 12, 2015

Follow-up: great horned owlet

Wiki: "The eyes of great horned owls are amongst the largest and most
powerfully acute in the animal kingdom." They see everything moving
around them. 
Photo: US Fish & Wildlife.

Folks that know me know that I am very easy-going, amiable. But this story has really piqued my ire. And I understand that everyone involved is big-hearted including me.

I have been in the “bird” business a long time. I’m so lucky to work at Ijams Nature Center and not only conduct classes in birds of all kinds but help care for six injured birds of prey. We do not do rehab, but we are licensed by TWRA to accept birds that have gone through rehab and deemed unreleasable back into the wild.

Lucky me. Best job in Knoxville.

Since I am an interpretive naturalist (and by creed have to interpret) here are a few additional thoughts on the topic of the Maryville great horned owl nest:

Around the world animal populations are in trouble especially many species of birds.

But not in this country. Yes, populations of bobwhites, whip-poor-wills, cerulean warblers and a modest list of others are on the decline. And if I were to go outside today and see a flock of evening grosbeaks in my woods, I’d have a coronary, but not before I’d send out an alarm to come see them.

While, Bachman’s warbler, Eskimo curlew and maybe even my beloved ivory-billed woodpecker may all be now extinct.

But as a whole, in America, our birds are doing well. Why? Because we have a 100 plus year history of conservation and strong laws to protect birds.

The law: Nesting birds are federally protected. It is illegal to take any baby bird from its nest, away from its parents unless you are 100 percent sure the parents are gone for at least 36 hours. Then that bird has to go to a licensed rehabber. To my knowledge, the only species not covered by this edict is the European starling, so if you want a pet captive bird there you go. The composer Mozart reportedly had a pet starling and loved it.

Abandonment: It is my experience that very, very few parent birds abandon their nestlings. Other than cowbirds, bird parents are great parents. They may grow to hate their choice of a nest site, but they hang in there until the entire family can fly away. I’m not saying it never happens, but I’m saying it rarely happens.

Mated pairs: In a few species, ruby-throated hummingbirds to name one, the female does all the work but in most species the male and female work together to feed the young. Sometimes one is killed, but the sole remaining parent raises the young alone.

Neglect: First-time parents may be a bit inexperienced at raising babies, they may choose a poor nest site but they somehow muddle through. They get better as time goes on. My Mom says she was better with my younger sister because she made all the mistakes on me.

Sitting on the nest: When nestlings get older, the parents/parent does not always sit on the nest with them. It can get crowded, plus Mom needs a break. She’s nearby watching.

Nest failure: It happens. Not all nests survive; a lot do not. I recently read that up to 40 percent of all robins’ nests fail, yet robins have one of the fastest growing populations in the country. Why? The increase in suburban lawns.

Habitat: Great horned owl (From the Cornell website) “The broad range of habitats they use includes deciduous and evergreen forests, swamps, desert, tundra edges, and tropical rainforest, as well as cities, orchards, suburbs and parks.” Notice three of the last four and those are full of people.

The Maryville great horned pair chose that site perhaps because all other suitable habitat was taken. It tells me that the great horned owl population around Maryville is thriving or why else would it choose there? If the nest is successful, in the future, there may be other great horned owl nests up and down the greenway. Wouldn’t that be grand?

As a general rule, many species of animals and birds are moving into the cities because the country is crowded because we have great conservation laws in this country.

Diet: Owls are nocturnal; they hunt primarily at night, that’s also when the small mammals are out foraging. Great horned owls are noted for killing skunks at night. (They have a poor sense of smell.) They doze during the day and may look “neglectful.”

But, “Scarcely anything that moves is safe from this owl. It will eat prey as small as insects and scorpions or as large as domestic cats, woodchucks, geese and great blue herons. This owl's diverse diet may include small mammals to rabbits, birds and reptiles to fish and amphibians. It will take carrion when the weather is bad. It regularly preys on smaller owls and has been reported to attack and kill even red-tailed hawks. It has no predators and will eat anything from crayfish to young foxes.” Great horned owls rarely starve.

People: Will the many on-lookers cause a nest to fail? Maybe, but I doubt it. People have been respectful and kept a safe distance. Read my last post about Pale Male in New York City. And it’s the “City that never sleeps.” Everyone I have spoken to says the parent looks pretty nonchalant about the folks watching.

The Rescue: You simply do not rescue a baby bird with its parent/parents watching. That's kidnapping. The dad was probably dozing somewhere waiting for nightfall and the hunt to begin. 

The Maryville owlet: Eye witnesses tell me that the owlet was fat and chunky, appeared healthy and cared for and even was still clutching the remains of its last meal in its talons. (It appeared to be a towhee.) As I understand it, US Fish & Wildlife officials have placed it back on the nest. Pray for it. Let’s hope its parents have not fled the area because someone kidnapped their baby. Would you hang around a crime scene?

But make no mistake, the best parent for a baby bird is its parent.

As I understand it, if the parents do not reappear in 36 hours, the owlet will be rescued for real, and have to spend the rest of its life in a cage. And that’s a shame considering it’s totally healthy. A rescued baby would have a very low survival rate in the wild as an adult. It did not have its parents to teach it the necessary survival skills.


Unknown said...

Stephen, Thank you for your information on great horned owls and the Maryville owlet. I was wondering if you know about appropriate technique to remove the owl. The paper showed photos of the rehabber with the owlet but not covered up. I know that this is a big no-no with baby condors and you have to wear coverings to prevent imprinting. Since great horned owlets rarely get released may be it is okay, but I wondering what you know about the prevention of imprinting and how it should be done in this situation. said...

I understand that the owlet was again removed by TWRA and taken to a different rehabilitation place. Hopefully one with surrogate parents. As is the case in so many wildlife dramas, human ignorance well meaning or not, is nearly as deadly as habitat destruction.

Anonymous said...

Nice educational piece. I'm hoping the public can learn from this. It seems to me a quality rehabber, would have taken precautions to prevent imprinting on humans. Doesn't the law state that every precaution must be taken to prevent imprinting on humans if the juvenille bird (protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act) is "rescued" for rehabilitation and re-release into the wild? Perhaps the public can learn to spot the legitimate, quality rehabbers by understanding this information?
Thanks again for an accurate and educational posting.