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Friday, June 19, 2015

The Magical Owlets

Two young owlets ventured out of their nest in the Arboretum, last month. To the casual observer, barred owls, whether young or old, may seem very similar. They all have large eyes, predatory beaks, sharp talons and round heads. 

A closer look displays a number of differences between the adults and the young. The parents (I have started to think of them as Merlin and Morgan) have larger heads relative to their body size. Their tails and wings are also longer and the variation in their colors is much more crisp. As you can see in this photo, their adult coloring helps them blend in with their surroundings.

The owlet's youthful white down will soon be replaced with more functional feathers.

During the same time, the owlets' skill, experience and confidence will grow dramatically. 

Initially, the parents must provide all the food for their young. Learning to hunt successfully requires time to integrate a variety skills. The young must develop the patience to wait as potential prey approaches. They must determine which creatures are likely targets and which are too big or too fast. They must learn to fly silently between the trees and branches. Also they have to learn how to quickly and safely dispatch their prey. (In this photo, Morgan is offering the owlet the remains of a smaller bird.)

The young owls have to learn to triangulate the precise location of their prey.

Initially, their confidence and ability to fly is so minimal they spend their first few weeks out of the nest climbing about on branches. Older owls never get stuck with twigs in their face, but the young owlets need to keep a secure grasp on the tree, so they simply fight their way through the foliage. 

By the the third or fourth day out of the nest, this owlet climbed out of the cedars and into the long, leggy rhododendrons, which provided more spacious perches.

During the day, the parents are usually happy to sit and sleep and then awaken at dusk to hunt; although, during this critical parenting part of the year they are alert and aware of the young at all times.

Being well fed and full of curiosity, the young feel the need to move about, even during the daylight. Here the wings are being used for balance instead of lift.

So much to learn and so little time, the walk-about continues.

I was surprised to realize that weeks after leaving their eggs the owlets still often appear "egg-shaped".

Learning to balance is...

…just one of the many skills

… the young owlets must master.

Having sharp talons does help...

…compensate for their lack of balance.

Even with the wings slightly extended, their egg-shape is still apparent.

In the same snag where the owls nested, nuthatches and chestnut-backed chickadees also nested; maybe, the presence of the adult owls provided the smaller birds with protection from raccoons, cooper's hawks and other predators.

In any case, I believe stellar's jays were nesting somewhere nearby. As a friend pointed out, whenever jay's are present, but exceptionally quiet, you are probably near their nest.

Sadly, the peace and quiet did not last.

Just after the owlet negotiated its way up this rhododendron branch, it glided over to a coniferous tree, where it was quickly approached by a very loud Stellar's jay. Maybe the jay was attempting to protect its nest.

In any case, the noisy jay clearly intimidated the owlet. Not yet confident in its ability to fly, the owlet used its sharp talons to climb directly up side of the tree, while flapping its wings wildly. The jay kept up the constant banter, causing the young owlet to frantically climb higher and higher. Once the jay decided the owlet was no longer a danger, it moved on. The experience made me realize how a smaller more mature bird could easily scare young birds into making a fatal mistake.

Luckily, I was able to catch up with our young owlets this week. They both looked quite healthy and able-bodied. Their wings and tails are longer and they are now adept at flying. They are looking more and more like their parents. I suspect it would be rather unwise for a jay to try and harass the owlets now, particularly since the young birds seem very confident and full of the magic of life.

Have a great day on Union Bay…where nature does magic in the city!



  1. Thanks for another fine article, Larry! The photos are great -- I appreciate being able to see the growth of the owlets.

    1. You are very welcome! I am glad you enjoyed them!

  2. Wonderful documentation. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for following along! The owlets learn so fast it is amazing!