Orange County

The perils of Houdini, part 2, waiting for Little Bit

Female Barred Owls never leave their owlets. You might see her grooming herself in a relaxed way, seemingly ignoring the owlets, but she keeps a vigilant eye.
Female Barred Owls never leave their owlets. You might see her grooming herself in a relaxed way, seemingly ignoring the owlets, but she keeps a vigilant eye.

When last we saw Houdini, the daring owlet had narrowly escaped entanglements before reaching the safety of a low tree branch. Now the young owlet had only to wait for its cautious sibling to make its first glide down from the nest cavity.

Owlets can’t actually fly when they make their initial glide to the ground. Once an owlet lands on the ground, the mother owl will coo and call the owlet to climb up to a nearby tree limb. In this way she leads the owlet into the forest. The process involves a series of climbs and glides that are orchestrated by the mother owl.

For the time being, Houdini was comfortably ensconced in a tree, awaiting further instructions from mama Barred.

A new day, and the second owlet has made the leap. Ruth named the cautious sibling “Little Bit.” Unlike Houdini, there were no reckless encounters in the yard.

Little Bit (after much encouragement) made a path directly to the shady, enclosed dog yard next to Ruth’s house. Once finding this leafy oasis, Little Bit struggled and reached a low wooden rail, inches from the ground, and directly next to the window of Ruth’s house. The owlet often stared into the home, but never dared to venture from its post in the dog yard.

This yard would become owl central for the next few days. No longer a play area for Ruth’s dogs, the fenced enclosure was dubbed the “owl corral.” Houdini could be seen climbing in and out of the fenced area, while Little Bit looked on in fascination.

Houdini might climb a wire fence GI style, or suddenly appear staring balefully down at Little Bit from a tree limb 30 feet above the corral. Sometimes Houdini couldn’t be located at all, but Little Bit perched for hours on the low rail trying to find some comfort and rest on a thin strip of wood, while the male owl hunted, and the female owl guarded her young.

The two owlets have very different techniques for navigating the world. Houdini would attempt any climbing feat, and had solid climbing skills to match a fearless nature. Although the bird rehab experts said that it was quite common for one owl to oust its sibling from the nest, that couldn’t have been the case for Houdini and Little Bit. The bold forays that had us worried are just part of a daring disposition.

Little Bit was the timid obedient owl. Told to remain on the post for the day, and Little Bit was glued to that post. Houdini would have been dragging through the yard by now using beak and claw to explore wherever he/she pleased.

Days passed and Little Bit showed no inclination to venture away from the railing of the owl corral. The owlet yawned, stretched, and sometimes draped its entire body over the rail with wings stretched down gripping the wood perch. Watching the poor owlet trying to find comfort on that post reminded me of trying to sleep on a plane, never enough room, never quite comfortable, only cramped exhaustion.

Owlet training continued. Live, injured prey was brought in for an owlet, and dropped onto the ground. The inexperienced owlet was so shocked by this moving thing next to it on the ground that the owlet leapt in horror, knocking its mother over in the process. The fledglings will need months of care from the parents before they are completely independent. Right now they are clumsy toddlers, requiring 24-hour supervision.

Female Barred Owls never leave their owlets. You might see her grooming herself in a relaxed way, seemingly ignoring the owlets, but she keeps a vigilant eye. A Cooper’s hawk suddenly dropped down into the corral, and the Barred mother has already driven the intruder away with a loud screech and a furious assault. The incident is over before human observers can register what exactly has occurred.

Days passed and the owls used the corral as the central training ground. Owl pellets littered the ground, and Little Bit slowly managed to climb tree trunks and perch on low limbs. The family often visited the house, and used the yard as a base of operations.

Finally, the day came when the owlets were no longer visible. The parent owl was on her usual perch, but where were Houdini and Little Bit? I looked throughout the canopy, but I couldn’t locate the owlets. Finally Ruth saw a bit of brown plumage high in a Pine. Both owlets were tucked away almost four stories up. With their limited flight skills, we realized that the largest part of this ascent had been accomplished using talons and beak alone. The talons that would eventually become lethal hunting weapons were strengthened by each ascent, but the wings that would enable to Barred to carry off prey heavier than itself, still lacked the strength of an adult raptor. Both owlets were close to adult weight, but remained reliant on the male owl for all food.

By mid July our local Barred owlets will be hunting local creeks for crayfish. I wonder if Houdini will be the owl that is always wet from mistimed dives, marching chest deep in water, while Little Bit waits patiently for the perfect moment to strike.

Many thanks to Ruth Ananda for her hospitality and keen observations while hosting this owl family for a second year, and thanks to Tamara and Jiri Prazma for giving Houdini a second chance.

Mary Sonis is a naturalist, photographer and writer in Carrboro. You can reach her at msonis@nc.rrr.com

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