By Tracie Hornung
Photo by Tom Keffer
A local landowner, who cut down a tree containing a Northern Saw-whet Owl nest, brought in two chicks this spring to Rowena Wildlife Clinic. Although he made the mistake of chopping down a tree during nesting season, he did the right thing by searching for the contents of the nest and for the owl parents.
When he couldn’t find the parents he took the baby birds to RWC. (Since the typical clutch size is four to seven eggs, there may well have been more chicks or eggs that he did not find.) Dr. Jean Cypher put them in an incubator for the first week, and a hack box for the next two weeks as she fed and cared for them.
Then the hack box was transferred to a tree on the edge of a forest, a perfect environment for the chicks. They would be safe inside, and be able to see out as they got used to the world they would soon enter, with its varying temperatures, sights and sounds.
A volunteer fed them each a dead mouse every dusk and dawn. Every three days she changed their bedding, as they cowered in fear in the back of the box while she worked. She said they were “very docile, quiet and curious. Sometimes they would cluck at me.”
As they grew bigger they grew bolder. And it became apparent that one was female and one male; female owls are typically larger than males. During their last week in the hack box the birds started flapping their wings, lunging at the door and even hanging on it. The volunteer said, “It was like they were wondering, ‘Is she going to open it?’”
The volunteer could tell the female was ready for release. But she wasn’t sure the male was, and she didn’t want to open the door until she was sure they could both fly and perch safely. So instead of taking the risk of opening the door for the every-three-day bedding change, the volunteer waited five days.
On the fifth day she opened the door slightly. The owls hesitated. The volunteer said she thought to herself that they must not be ready for release yet, but she opened the door a little wider. Suddenly the female exploded out of the box, flying over her head and landing gracefully on a branch 10 feet away. For another five minutes the two birds stared at each other, one on the branch and the other still in the hack box. Then the male flew out, too, also landing successfully on the same branch. The two followed each other up to the end of the branch and back down, over and over.
For the rest of the day and the following day they perched in the tree above the hack box. On the third day the volunteer said she couldn’t see them but she heard them calling from another grove of fir trees. She continued to leave mice out for them in case they weren’t ready to do their own hunting. She did that for a week, but the young owls never took them. Dr. Cypher told her if they had been hungry – and not hunting on their own – they would have taken the mice. So it is highly probable that sister and brother Saw-whet are now out exploring the world successfully on their own.
Northern Saw-whet Owl Fast Facts:
A Northern Saw-whet is a tiny owl with a catlike face, oversized head, and bright yellow eyes. Saw-whets are one of the most common owls in forests across northern North America (and across the U.S. in winter). They are highly nocturnal and seldom seen. Their high-pitched too-too-too call is a common evening sound in evergreen mountain forests from January through May.
For more information, visit the Cornell Lab of Orinithology website.