Thursday, April 22, 2010

Fledging TIme for Great-horned Owlets

Happy Earth Day Everyone!

( Photo: This Great-horned Owlet was on the ground at a local cemetery and caused some concern among folks that came upon it. Photo by Steve and Evie Fisher)

There is nothing cuter than a baby owl. No matter what the species, they are fluffy and almost round in appearance. They look a lot like a stuffed toy rather than the wild, well-armed future predator they are.

We have received several calls this past week from people who happen upon these adorable little balls of fluff. This is the time of the year when Great-horned Owls fledge, or leave their nest and become mobile.

( Photo: A young Great-horned Owl has the distinctive yellow eyes of its parents, which identify the owl species before the chick has feathers.)

Great-horned Owls are our earliest nesting birds in WI. It seems a contradiction; however, the adult owls are often on nests by late January when the winds are howling and snow covers our northern landscape. Great-horned Owls do not build their own nest. Instead, they choose an old nest of a crow, hawk, or even a squirrel to call their own.

When the young owls are 6-8 weeks old, they begin to venture from their nest. This is before they can actually fly. Nature's method provides owlets opportunities to develop their leg muscles that will very soon be catching their own prey. In a natural setting owlets that appear to have fallen from their nest actually have fledged. In a natural wooded area, bushes and smaller trees provide a ladder of sorts and allow the chicks to climb to a higher perch until they can fly. When owls nest in a city with concrete below them rather than a soft forest floor, problems arise. That is also the case with a well-manicured park or lawn setting that has nothing that can function as a ladder for the tykes.

Our job at REGI is to resolve which owlets are actually in trouble and need to come into captive care and which are doing as nature intended. This year we have had several calls with young owls on the ground. All have thus far ended up being normal owlets with parents at the location. They just need to be left alone so the adult can tend to them.
No matter how good the wildilfe center is, the owlets' natural parents are always the best choice to raise them.

( Photo: Adult Great-horned Owl guarding her chick. (Photo by Steve and Evie Fisher.)

When owlets come into captivity at REGI, they are raised here by a foster parent. The foster is a non-releasable adult of their own species. That allows the little ones to grow up to be owls and not imprinted to humans. While the little ones are adorable, they quickly grow up into real honest-to-goodness owls. If they are hand fed or associate food with people during their nestling period, the young owls become human imprints. They identify with people and not owls. It is a condition that is not reversible. Imprinted birds are very aggressive once they reach maturity. Some of the most dangerous birds we have are imprints. Because of the extreme aggression, they are never able to be released to the wild.

Owlets can eat between 13-17 mice per night when they are about 3-4 weeks old. They are little mouse-eating machines until their growth levels out. An adult owl eats about 4 mice per day.

( Photo: Great-horned Owl foster parents raising a wild youngster last spring. They are protective and great parents even to babies not their own.)

If you find a young owl, leave it where it is, unless it is in imminent danger. Give us a call and let us help you decide if the adults are in attendance and the chick is just fledging naturally or if there is something wrong with the little one. Remember, owls are nocturnal for the most part and are not easy to see during daylight hours. Mom and dad could be very close and yet be so well camouflaged they are hard to see.

If a nest tree has been cut or blown down, artificial nests can be used so the owl parents can continue to care for their young.

Have a great day everyone.

Marge Gibson © 2010


  1. I love the "Hey, I'm ferocious" look on the first photo.

  2. Thanks for the article. I learned a lot.

  3. Thank you for the helpful information. Here in Boise Idaho we are just seeing our owlets. I'd love to send you a photo of a pair.
    -jayme mullaney