I’ll bet many of you didn’t even know we were expecting here at Peace River Wildlife Center.  We didn’t know ourselves until Wildlife Center of Venice (WCV) called to ask if we could provide a permanent home for a fledgling barred owl that they had taken in and would not be able to release.

A few months ago, my hero, Kevin Barton of WCV, had performed his magic to re-nest a fallen nestling barred owl.  The youngster had been admitted to WCV uninjured and the parents were still onsite at the nest.  Kevin was able to climb the tree and plop the baby right back up there where he belonged.

Barred owls, with their distinctive “Who cooks for you?” call, were historically found on the east coast of the U.S., mainly in old-growth forests because they prefer to nest in natural cavities and hollows of mature and dead trees.  As this type of habitat becomes scarce, they’ve adapted and 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 radius.  This species has been expanding north and west, into Canada and now down into northern California, where they are pushing northern spotted owls out of their habitat.

Breeding season in Florida is late January to March.  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, presenting his talons, if threatened.  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 and beak to dig in, while fluttering his wings to get to lower branches, and will remain there while his parents protect and feed him.  The barred owl’s primary predator is the great horned owl, although raccoons can be a threat as well.  And sometimes, even with the best of intentions, man can be nature’s worst enemy.

During a re-nesting, we normally ask the homeowners in the area to keep an eye on the baby and let us know if it falls out of the nest again.  We will re-nest another time or two, but if it continues to end up on the ground, we assume there is either something wrong with the baby or there are larger siblings that will not allow the smaller one to eat and rest comfortably. I know that feeling, having had an older sister who used her height and weight advantages to torture me throughout our youth.

When WCV heard nothing more about the status of the barred owl, they assumed all was well.  Until it wasn’t.  At some point, they realized the homeowners were paying a little too much attention to the baby owl.  Concerned that the parents weren’t feeding it enough, the people lured the owl down from the tree and fed it ground beef off of their shoes.  I have heard some wacky advice people claim to have gotten from the internet, but that was a new one for all of us.

The owlet was taken back into rehab and placed with foster parent barred owls to try to wild him up again.  But by then, the damage was done.  He was too habituated to people and would never be able to live free.  He would not know how to feed himself or associate with members of his own species.

Luckily, PRWC was able to obtain a permit to keep the owl as an education bird.  He is currently learning the ropes as a glove-trained bird and will go to outreach events and greet visitors at the Center as soon as he is ready.

We believe his birth date to be in February of this year, making him about 5 months old now.  A blood test showed the bird to be a male, so we are in the process of choosing a name for him.  So far, we have had a few suggestions:

A little owl stares at a big world. Photo by Josh Olive

A little owl stares at a big world. Photo by Josh Olive

Orion—the constellation named after a hunter in Greek mythology.

Rigel—the brightest star in the Orion constellation.

Betelgeuse—(pronounced “beetle juice”) the second brightest star in the Orion constellation and one of the largest stars known (950 times as large as our sun.)

Shakespeare—because he is a barred (bard) owl.

Bilford—just because

If you have other suggestions, email us at PeaceRiverWildlife@yahoo.com or comment on our FaceBook page.

In the meantime, don’t forget to visit all of PRWC’s residents, who get a little lonely during the summer months.  If you have extra time on your hands during the lazy, hazy days of summer, consider volunteering at PRWC.  We need habitat cleaners, tour guides, gift shop clerks, and hospital helpers.  It’s hot and dirty work, but you never know what will turn up in the course of a day.  Around here, we always expect the unexpected.

by Robin Jenkins, DVM