The Owls Have It

Four newly hatched owlettes and the extraordinary story of their parents are an unexpected gift for the wildlife caretakers at Nature of Wildworks. Photo courtesy Mollie Hogan

It all started one morning about two months ago when Meagan arrived at the Nature of Wildworks wildlife center in Topanga at 9 a.m. to begin her day as a wildlife caretaker. Her first duty of the day is to check the 50 resident birds and mammals before preparing their diets.  

Now in our 25th year, the Wildworks center continues to provide lifelong care for a variety of wild and exotic birds, mammals and reptiles and presents them in educational public programs to teach children and adults about our local wildlife.

A few months back we had acquired an imprinted male barn owl. Imprinted means that a person handled the bird too much when he was a rescued chick and the owl now thinks he’s a person (or he thinks people are barn owls); either way he cannot successfully be released into the wild.  

We have housed a female barn owl with a similar history for 15 years now and we thought maybe they would hit it off. Not! The female is Dancer so we named the male Singer and attempted an introduction. Dancer let us know immediately that she was not interested in a new roommate and that was that. Singer has since been housed in an enclosure adjacent to Dancer, where they can see each other and make their unique mating calls, flirting from a distance.

This spring I’d been hearing them call and then, right on schedule, Dancer laid a clutch of eggs, just like she has every year. Although they aren’t fertile she doesn’t seem to mind being a good pretend mommy. Eventually, when they never hatch, she goes on with her life.

On this particular morning when Meagan checked on Singer, she found a huge surprise. Two surprises, in fact, in the form of young, mottled, feathered female barn owls!   

She came to me and said, “Uhm, Mollie, there are two barn owls in Singer’s cage.”

I thought she was kidding but when I looked inside, there they were. How did they get in? There is a window in the enclosure with thin slats as the only choice, but it still seemed impossible for something the size of a barn owl to fit through. Singer had never tried to leave.

Barn owls weigh half a pound (8 ounces) and are covered with soft thick feathers that make them look bigger than they are. Somehow, they squeezed their feather-covered skeletons through in the name of love.

Shortly, one of the girls departed and the chosen mate remained. I thought about catching her up and letting her go but, of course, she had no problem getting into the enclosure so she was free to leave at any time.

We decided to wait and see what happens. We named her Sonata and she and her handsome mate were getting along famously when she appeared to be nesting. Low and behold, I spotted an egg! It was peeking out from her body, which was lying flat in the nesting position. Then there were four eggs!!

The barn owl is an amazing creature. Not smart by our definition, they operate almost solely on instinct and, in that respect, they are far superior to humans. A barn owl has the best hearing of any animal. When perched in a tall tree it can hear the heartbeat of a mouse in the grass below. Their night vision is amazing, and they have silent flight…completely silent. One barn owl, weighing in at half a pound, can eat 1,000 mice a year. They are no danger at all to people and pets and are the best mouse trap on the market today.

That said, this story is still an unbelievably amazing example of owl instincts and it’s not over yet. There was no way to know if the owls had consummated their relationship and, because birds will lay with or without fertilization, we just had to wait.

There are many people coming and going here at Wildworks but Anthony saw them first. It was a tiny chick and then another and now there are four. We appropriately named them Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues.

Here at the Wildworks Center we feed our resident birds of prey defrosted mice , rats, chicks, and quail (yes—you can buy anything online), and Singer was the perfect Dad. While Sonata kept the eggs and then the chicks warm, he would pick up her dinner from the floor of the enclosure, delivering the rodents to her before eating anything himself. Then her job was to rip them into small pieces and feed them to her young.

So far, it’s working and so fun to watch. But not up close, mind you, because Singer takes his job of protecting the family very seriously. In fact, we have to sneak in wearing a suit of armor just to provide fresh water!

Our plan for their future is to build a “soft release” nest box adjacent to the enclosure so when the time is right, mom and her juvenile kids can head back out into the wilds of Topanga. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy observing and will keep you posted! n   

The Nature of Wildworks is a 501©3 non-profit wildlife rescue and education center. Now in our 25th year we offer outreach programs and guided tours by appointment and we always accept donations. Please visit us at natureofwildworks.org

 

By Mollie Hogan, Executive Director, Natureofwildworks.org

 

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