Three Baby Great Horned Owls Back with Their Families

Story by Maggie Rufo

It’s Baby Season for Hawks and Owls!

Baby Great Horned Owl at WildCare. Photo by Melanie Piazza

The first owlet is examined and weighed at WildCare. Photo by Melanie Piazza

In the space of two weeks, three Great Horned Owlets arrived at WildCare. All three had fallen from their nests before they were old enough to be on their own. High winds, and the fact that Great Horned Owls do not build nests, but use the nests of other birds, or squirrels, probably contributed to the falls. The good news is that all three fell within Marin County Parks and Open Space preserves and were rescued by concerned humans.

Although young Great Horned Owls (fledglings or “branchers”) are perfectly fine being on the ground, nestling owls (babies that are still fluffy) are not. The first two owlets we admitted had fallen on a busy hiking trail that hosts bikes, walkers, dogs, and horses, so it was not safe to leave them where they were.

Great Horned Owlet ready to return to the nest. Photo by Craig Solin

He’s healthy, so he is placed in a box for transport back to the nest site. Photo by Craig Solin

On a recent Sunday, Owlet #1 was found by WildCare volunteer, Susan Parnes who walks a Marin County Parks and Open Space trail on a regular basis. Susan saw the owlet on the side of the trail, in the early morning. Susan continued her walk and when she returned, the owlet was still there. Susan went home and gathered her troops (her sons and their bicycles, along with a box and towels) and they all rode back and picked up the owlet. Her older son, who is on the mountain bike team at the local high school, carried the box of owl on his bike back to the house. Susan then delivered the little one to WildCare.

Placing the owlet in the nest. Photo by Craig Solin

Heavy gloves protect volunteer Maggie Rufo’s hands from the owlet’s talons, and a Tyvek suit protects her from the poison oak surrounding the site. Photo by Craig Solin

WildCare gave the owlet a full medical check and then alerted the Raptor Rescue and Reunite (RRR) team, comprised of volunteers from WildCare and the Hungry Owl Project, that this one could go back to his home. Meanwhile WildCare/Hungry Owl Project volunteer, Maggie Rufo went with Susan to see the spot the owl was found. A half-eaten rat was found in the spot where the owlet had been, so clearly the bird’s parents were caring for him. An adult owl was also seen perched above the trail looking down at the humans. This was when Maggie noticed that the hillside was covered in poison oak (which would certainly complicate the renesting effort!) Maggie was unable to find an obvious nest site, so it was decided a basket would be needed. A golden ribbon was left on a branch to help find the spot again.

Setting up the basket. Photo by Maggie Rufo

Marin County Park and Open Space Rangers, Mike Warner and Craig Solin place the basket in the tree. Photo by Maggie Rufo

While determining a strategy to get this owlet up into the trees, when all the usual volunteer tree climbers were out of the country, it was decided to approach Marin County Parks to see if the rangers could help. The group reached out to Ranger Craig Solin, a great wildlife photographer, and he agreed to help and brought along Ranger Mike Warner.

RRR team member, Maggie got out of work early on Wednesday afternoon, and met the rangers who drove everyone, including the owl, to the site. Meanwhile the finders and some of their neighbors were walking to the site to watch the reunite.

Ranger Warner handed out Tyvek suits to help protect volunteers from the rampant poison oak and Maggie and two rangers went up the hill, with the owlet in a carrier. Adult owls were seen at the site as they arrived. The rangers selected a good nearby tree, and Ranger Warner carefully attached the basket to the tree and placed the owlet inside.

Feed a baby owl! Photo by Melanie PiazzaThe neighbors agreed to check for owl sightings on their daily walks and to look up into the woods for sightings of the adults. The following night Maggie went to the site to check on things. It was near dusk and she heard an adult hooting, as well as the quiet calls of an owlet, although the calls were not coming from the basket area, but from a short distance away. Maggie realized there were at least two owlets in the family.

On Thursday afternoon, Susan’s neighbor called to tell her an owl was on the ground again, at the same location, and Susan got the owl and took him to WildCare. Lo and behold, this was a different owl – the younger sibling of the one in the basket. Once again a health check in the Wildlife Hospital showed no problems. The rangers were contacted and Ranger Warner was available on Friday to take Owlet #2 to the basket.

Reunited owlets. Photo by Mike Warner

Both babies tucked safely into the basket. Photo by Ranger Mike Warner

This gave everyone an opportunity to check on the well-being of Owlet #1 and they were pleased to see him doing great and being very feisty. While the second owl was added to the basket, the adult female sat in a nearby tree vocalizing loudly at the disruption. Ranger Warner installed a trail camera above the basket and in a few weeks, once the owls have fledged, the camera will be retrieved and the images processed. Check back to this page for pictures of the owls taken by the trail cam!

No sooner had the team patted themselves on the backs for Owlet #2 than a call came from WildCare – Ranger Adam Craig at another Marin County Park and Open Space preserve had found a Great Horned Owl chick on the ground.

The mother Great Horned Owl. Photo by Craig Solin

A great shot of the mother Great Horned Owl. She has been spotted feeding her owlets in the new basket nest. Photo by Craig Solin

This one was older and the ranger could see the mother owl and a sibling up in the trees. WildCare/Hungry Owl Project/Golden Gate Raptor Observatory volunteer Anne Ardillo and Ranger Craig successfully renested this owl in a basket near his family.

So, thanks to the efforts of the public, multiple volunteers, agency staff and non-profits, two owl families are back together. It takes a village, and both the wildlife and the humans in Marin County are so lucky to have wonderful organizations like these working together to help animals in need!

Watch video below of the two owlets in their surrogate nest. Video taken by Ranger Mike Warner:

What To Do If You Find a Baby Hawk or Owl on the Ground

Great Horned Owl "branchers." Photo by Sharon Osberg

If you find a baby owl on the ground, try to determine from which tree he fell so he may be returned to his family. Photo by Sharon Osberg

Although for Great Horned Owls and some other raptor species, spending time on the ground is part of the natural maturation process, most young birds of prey on the ground are in need of assistance. Especially if the bird is mostly covered in down (white, fluffy feathers), she needs immediate assistance.

Call WildCare’s 24-hour Living with Wildlife Hotline 415-456-SAVE (7283) immediately if you find a baby raptor (or any baby wildlife) on the ground.

Renesting of baby raptors is frequently possible, so take careful note of the location of the bird and the surroundings. Things to note, if possible, before calling:

  1. The exact location, type of tree and the placement of the nest (if visible).
  2. Is the bird injured?
  3. Is the bird mostly down (white fuzzy feathers), lacking mature feathers?
  4. Is the bird in immediate danger from other animals or people?
  5. Is there a nest visible?
  6. Are there other siblings in the nest?
  7. Are the parents present?
  8. Can you identify the bird?
Great Horned Owlet held properly. Photo by Gary Koffler

Wear heavy gloves and keep control of those talons. This photo illustrates good owlet-handling technique. Photo by Gary Koffler

You may be instructed to bring the baby to WildCare or your local wildlife hospital (click for listings of wildlife care centers nationwide). If so, you’ll need:

  1. Heavy leather gloves (even baby raptors have VERY sharp talons and beaks!)
  2. A covered box or kennel, ideally lined with a towel

Wearing the thick gloves, handle the bird gently but firmly and avoid contact with the talons. Gently place the bird in the box and close it. If you are required to keep the bird overnight before bringing her to a wildlife hospital, place the bird in the box in a warm, dark, quiet place. Do not give the bird any food or water, and do not check on her. The baby’s chances of survival increase if stress levels are low. Get the bird to your local wildlife center as soon as possible.

If the baby is healthy and uninjured, getting her back with her parents offers the best chance of survival. As with these Great Horned Owlets, renesting of raptors is usually very successful. Read more at


LARGE Baskets Needed!

Owlet in a basket. Photo by Craig Solin

We need wide-mouthed baskets! Photo by Craig Solin

When an existing nest can’t be found or utilized, WildCare and the Hungry Owl Project Raptor Rescue and Reunite Team use large baskets as surrogate nests. But we need big baskets! Great Horned Owls and other raptors are large birds, even when they are nestlings, so a little Easter basket just isn’t big enough!

For this year’s Baby Raptor Season, we are requesting donations of large, sturdy laundry-type baskets. Wicker or other natural materials are preferred. Baskets with an opening diameter of 2 feet or larger are the best. Remember that a basket nest must be able to withstand not only being attached to a tree and holding the weight of rambunctious owlets, but also the weight and talons of adult birds perching to feed. Wide-mouthed and sturdy baskets are the key.

Questions about your basket? Email

Baskets may be brought to WildCare (click for directions).