Its baby season for great horned owls and that means its baby season for Owl Moon too! In the past three weeks I’ve have had four baby great horned owls come through my doors. I know I said last time this was going to be a two part story, but there so much to tell it looks like it’s going to be three parts.
The first baby great horned of the season was a “brancher” from Rockville, MD. A brancher is a baby who has graduated from the nest but is not yet able to fly. In this stage they climb around in the tree branches (hence called “branchers”), building their strength. Branchers often wind up on the ground, and their parents will continue to feed and care for them. Jim discovered the owlet when he arrived home from work on April 3rd. He stepped up onto his deck, and right there in front of him was a baby Great Horned Owl, perched on the railing by his back door. Jim knew what it was because he and his family had been observing them since February, when the pair built their nest.
Jim left the baby undisturbed that evening, but discovered the bird was still there the next morning as he was getting his kids ready for school. Jim was concerned for the owl’s safety, so he contacted Second Chance Wildlife Center, who referred him to me. When I arrived, I first examined the baby owl to make sure it wasn’t injured. Jim’s son named the baby owl “Twilight,” after an owl character from the book series Guardians of Ga’Hoole by Kathryn Lasky. Twilight appeared healthy, so my next objective was to scope out his nest to see if he could be returned to it. Though their parents will tend to them on the ground, in suburbia it is best if you can get branchers back into the nest tree if possible, where they are safe from prowling pets and traffic.
The nest was intact; 80 feet high in a white oak tree, across the ninth green of the Manor Country Club Golf Course in a grove of trees a good distance behind Jim’s house. However, there were two complications. Firstly, the tree was dead. It was not safe to climb to the height of the nest. Second, there was another baby still in the nest. This was problematic because at the branching age siblings can be spooked out of the nest when a climber approaches to put the other baby back. For the safety of the climber and Twilight’s sibling, we decided to build a replacement nest rather then put Twilight back in the original.
I built a new nest in a laundry basket with the help of Jim’s son, his wife Georgeann, and my friend Lee (also a wildlife rehabber). Owl Moon’s “re-nesting” partners, Mike Fried and Jason Beach of Comprehensive Tree Care, were prepared to take on the job.
Our standard re-nesting procedure goes like this. First, we consult with the climbers to scout the best accessible location for the new nest. Preferably we choose a place in the same tree as the original nest, but a neighboring tree can suffice for older babies. Then, Mike sets up the ropes and Jason climbs to the new nest site. We tie the nest basket to the ropes, along with tools to mount it to the tree, and send it up. With the nest mounted, Jason sends the rope down for the baby. We place the baby in a soft cooler or 5-gallon bucket covered with a towel, tie this to the rope, and send it up to Jason. Jason carefully removes the baby and places it in the nest, from below the nest if possible. Out of sight, he waits quietly to make sure the baby settles in before descending to the ground.
The whole procedure went off without a hitch. We left that evening with Twilight safely back in his nest tree, sixty feet up in a cozy basket. His sibling was twenty feet above him in the original nest. One of the parents, who had been watching us from a distance as we worked, flew in to join the sibling in the original nest just as we were packing up to leave after dark.
The whole thing had gone perfectly, so I was surprised when I received a call the next morning from Randy, Head of Greens at Manor Country Club, telling me there was a baby owl on the ground at the golf course. When we arrived, we discovered that is was not Twilight this time, but his sibling who had come down. Twilight was still where we left him, perched on the side of the nest basket.
Both owlets coming down in such quick succession without any foul weather involved was an indication that maybe they were near enough to being fully fledged to be on the ground. As mentioned above, in the normal course of an owls’ maturation, and with great horned owls in particular, the babies often spend time on the ground between branching and being fully flighted. Their feathers provide camouflage, and their parents will lead them to cover, feed them, and defend them against predators. My concern was that their home was a golf course, with very little cover, no limbs low on the trees, and lots of golfers.
We decided to try putting Twilight’s sibling, which Jim’s son named “Gylfie” after another owl character in the series, into the nest basket with Twilight. It was risky because we would be disturbing Twilight, who had settled in nicely, but it seemed worth the risk to get Gylfie up out of harms’ way. The plan was set for the next morning. Lee and I arrived early to give Gylfie some food and fluids prior to re-nesting since it would be evening before her parents would feed her. Jason and another Mike, Mike Rice, arrived and set up the ropes, just as they had done two nights before.
The problems began at the critical moment when Jason went to put Gylfie in with Twilight. Unfortunately, Twilight had settled on the basket perch closest to where Jason was forced (by the way the tree was configured) to approach. He would need to get past Twilight to get Gylfie into the basket. Jason’s approach was slow and careful, but the disturbance was too much, and both owlets flew from the nest.
The key word here is “flew.” These two youngsters were so close to being fully fledged, that they managed to fly a good distance before landing on the ground. Granted, theirs were not the smoothest of landings, with one rolling head over heels, but both were fine. We decided to try again. This time, with both owlets together and a towel to cover the basket until they settled down, we stood a better chance of success.
It was not to be. Gylfie flew out a second time when Jason removed the towel. Again, she landed fine. Without having an alternative solution to protect these babies on the busy golf course, we made one final attempt. It proved futile. In the end, we left Twilight in the basket, and Gylfie in the safest place we could get her to stay put; the richly-landscaped backyard of James and Georgeann.
We returned at dusk, hoping to get Gylfie into the lower branches of the trees. Gylfie, however, was not to be found. We learned that the landscape maintenance crew had come through that day, and the disturbance undoubtedly sent Gylfie into a neighboring yard. The fact that we didn’t find her does not mean that she was in danger, however. She was following the normal course of events for a growing owl. She was big enough and a strong enough flyer to face the world with the help of her parents, who were no doubt standing by. She made up her own mind; it was time to leave the nest. Among the greenery in the yards surrounding the golf course, there is plenty of vegetation in which a young owl can hide. With their strong talons and wings to propel them, young owls can even climb the trunks of trees like a cat, and get themselves into the lower branches.
Two days later, Twilight left his nest basket and presumably joined Gylfie. James or Georgeann have not seen them since, but we know Gylfie and Twilight have two healthy parents looking out for them. Their parents will keep them in cover, and continue to feed and watch over them. Sometimes you just have to trust Mother Nature.