Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a branching barred owl this week. The little guy had fallen out of his nest in a tree cavity at a local park. Observers were watching the family and reported that there were two other babies still in the nest—a clutch size of two to three is normal for barred owls. Our first objective when presented with a baby bird, especially a raptor, is to get the baby back into the nest, if at all feasible, as quickly as possible. We don’t want the parents to leave the area, thinking the baby is gone and not coming back. With two more in the nest, we had a little more time to arrange a re-nesting of this kiddo.
A good thing too, because we needed a little extra time to assess this baby’s health. He came to us with distinct cloudiness in the lenses of both eyes. We don’t see barred owl youngsters as often as great horned owls and screech owls, and we have never observed cloudy lenses in healthy members of those two species. When he first came in, the baby barred owl seemed rather oblivious to us. He did not focus on us and did not track, or follow our hands when waved in front of his face. We were concerned that he may have been blind—a possible reason for him having fallen from his nest.
Barred owls were historically found on the east coast, in old growth forests because they prefer to nest in natural cavities and hollows of mature trees. As this type of habitat becomes scarce, they will now nest in man-made structures like boxes or steal stick nests built by crows, hawks or even squirrels. They do not migrate and usually spend their entire lives within a six-mile area. This species has been expanding north and west, into Canada and now down into northern California.
Hatchling barred owls are born covered in white fluffy down, which is replaced in nestlings at two to three weeks by a secondary greyish-buff down. At six weeks the fledglings start to get their adult feathers, beginning on the back, over the scapular or shoulder area. Then the abdomen, flanks, and upper breast get feathers, in that order. By four months of age the head will still be downy. The young barred owl will have complete adult plumage by six months.
By three weeks of age, a baby barred owl is normally moving around the nest and will snap his bill and lie on his back if threatened, presenting his talons. At four to five weeks, the branching baby will perch on the edge of the nest and climb out onto nearby branches. If he drops to the ground, he can even climb back up his tree or a neighboring one using his talons, beak, and fluttering his wings to get to lower branches and perch there while his parents protect and feed him there. The barred owl’s primary predator is the great horned owl, although raccoons can be a threat as well.
With a raptor at the age of the one presented to PRWC (approximately 3 to 4 weeks) it is vital that we handle the bird appropriately. That is to say, not handle it any more than absolutely necessary. We do not want to habituate this baby, making him associate humans with food or comfort. We want him to fear us and look to others of his own species for all of his needs.
Within a few days of his admission, the baby barred was scheduled for an appointment with a local veterinary ophthalmologist, Dr. M-A Salisbury, in Sarasota. After a thorough exam, the baby was given a clean bill of health. Dr. Salisbury was able to see that the structures in the backs of his eyes, behind the cloudy lenses, appeared to be normal. By this time, he was tracking and watching us intently, clicking up a storm, talons at the ready to attack if an unsuspecting hand got too close. (It did. Trust me when I tell you, it hurt.) It was determined that any lenticular cloudiness would resolve as the owl matured. So, with the question of his vision answered, the only thing left to do was get him back up into his nest.
This is where we call in our friends at Wildlife Center of Venice. WCV co-founder, Kevin Barton, never disappoints when asked to re-nest a raptor for us. This re-nesting was on the easy side, only about 20 feet up and fairly easily reached with a ladder. Kevin had only to clamber over a few branches from the top of the ladder and tip the baby back into the nest cavity. (See how easy it is for me to say it was easy? I’m not the one trying to wrestle a raptor up a ladder, perched precariously against some spindly tree, with mom and dad dive-bombing my head!)
By the time we gathered our gear and answered questions for the small crowd that had amassed, the baby was another ten feet up the tree. He had sprung right back out of the nest and was climbing up the tree faster than Kevin was climbing down. Something tells me it was his devil-may-care spirit that got this kid into trouble to begin with, not a problem with his vision. Perfect vision aside, he may not live to see adulthood if he doesn’t slow down a little.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM