Reunited Great Horned Owlets

Reunited Great Horned Owlets

Although Great Horned Owls are very good parents, they aren't exactly champion nest builders. In fact, these large owls don't even build their own nests-- they take over the already-built nests of other birds like hawks or ravens in which to raise their young. 

The parents of these three owlets live in the Marin County of city of Fairfax, California, and every year they lay their eggs in a nest in a cluster of redwood trees over a public park next to the police and fire department buildings.

Unfortunately, for at least the last two years, the nests they have found are in terrible condition and the owlets have ended up on the ground in the public park due to the nests collapsing.

Once they're a little older, Great Horned Owlets can actually climb trees using their beak and feet (along with a lot of wing flapping). These three are a little too young for that, however, and the nest's location over a public park meant WildCare's Raptor Reunite Team would need to provide assistance if this owl family were to be reunited.

The three owlets arrived at WildCare at different times, which was actually also how they hatched. Great Horned Owls (and many bird species) hatch their eggs asynchronously, meaning that, unlike birds like ducks whose ducklings hatch all at the same time, the owlets hatch in the order their eggs were laid. The mother Great Horned Owl begins incubating her first egg as soon as it is laid, which means the first owlet may be a week or more older than his siblings. This probably helps ensure that at least one owlet in a clutch survives, even if prey availability changes. 

The owlet in this photo is the oldest, and also the last one to come down. The nest the owl parents chose was not only poorly constructed, it was also easily visible to the crows that also inhabit the Fairfax park, and who aggressively defend "their" territory against predators. The bare skin around the owlet's eyes is the result of crows pecking at his feathers! Once he was in care at the WildCare Hospital, Medical Staff were glad to be able to provide him some relief with a soothing ointment and an anti-inflammatory pain medication. We also planned to place the new basket nest in a more protected area very close to the original nest site.

Because a second large storm moved through our area just as we had all three owlets in care, we decided to delay the reunite until the weather had cleared. In the video below, you can see Director of Animal Care, Melanie Piazza feeding the owlets bites of mouse (defrosted and warmed before serving). They're pretty hungry, but all three were well-fleshed and healthy on intake, which means that the parent owls were doing a good job caring for this trio.

Finally the weather cleared, the adult Great Horned Owls were confirmed to still be at the nesting site, and it was time to complete the reunite!

Local arborist James Reed met the WildCare team in the grove of the redwood trees and began his climb after the sun set. The night climb was necessary, both because owls are nocturnal, and we knew the parents would be awake and ready to go hunting to feed their young, and also to reduce the possibility that the local crows would see the basket nest and attack the owlets again. 

In the video below you can see James climbing the tall redwood, pulling the camouflaged basket nest up (he wired it into place at the top), and the owlets being placed into a carrier for their trip back up the tree. 

As James climbed, the team on the ground could hear the agitated parent owls calling back and forth, no doubt very concerned about the perceived "predator" in their nest tree. 


James successfully placed the owlets in the new basket nest and rappelled out of the tree. The next morning at dawn, spotters from WildCare's Raptor Reunite Team confirmed that the parent owls were in the nest with their little ones. All is well with this owl family.

Why does WildCare go to such lengths to reunite babies like these owls with their parents? Many reasons!

As with all of our wildlife babies, it is always best that they be raised by their parents. With raptors this is especially important, as baby hawks and owls spend months learning the very difficult skill of hunting live prey. While they are learning, young raptors fail at hunting more often than not, so their parents supplement their meals during this period. At WildCare, we have very limited aviary space so we need to keep our enclosures available for injured and orphaned birds that truly do need our care. And finally, these growing babies eat thousands of mice over the course of their stay with us. Their food bills are tremendous! So, keeping healthy babies in the wild also saves WildCare a lot of money!

Help WildCare always be ready to care for injured and orphaned owls and other raptors, and help us reunite the ones that are healthy enough to return to the nest! Click to donate now!