The perils of Houdini, the errant owlet

All owlets make their first flight down to the ground, but normally, the mother then coaxes the young owlet to make a first climb, to the relative safety of a tree branch.
All owlets make their first flight down to the ground, but normally, the mother then coaxes the young owlet to make a first climb, to the relative safety of a tree branch. MARY SONIS

Day1: I received a call from friend and artist Ruth Ananda that a barred owl pair had nested for a second year in a massive double trunked pine tree next to her house.

Last year the pair had successfully raised one owlet, but this year the parents had two owlets. A problem had arisen. One of the owlets was on the ground in front of the nest, but this owlet was a just short of being ready to fledge.

All owlets make their first flight down to the ground, but normally, the mother then coaxes the young owlet to make a first climb, to the relative safety of a tree branch. Branching is a normal developmental step for young birds.

This owlet was too young to make the climb. There it sat vulnerable on the ground, and no amount of gentle coaxing from the mother owl could persuade the owlet to move. The second owlet was peering out from the tree cavity, curious, but not foolhardy enough to make a leap to the ground.

There was more to the story. Ruth and I noticed that a large white bucket was tied to the tree. Why a bucket? Ruth’s neighbors Tamara and Jiri gave us the back-story.

Two weeks earlier, her neighbors had found a tiny owlet sitting on the ground. It was no bigger than softball. Realizing that the owlet needed help, Tamara and Jiri called a rehabilitation facility.

As a best option to keep the family intact, the rehab group suggested that they get a 5 gallon bucket, drill drainage holes in the bottom, line the bucket with a small amount of straw and attach the bucket beneath the nest cavity. The tree sits in a deep gully, so the bucket was propped in place with a long plank, and secured with twine around the massive tree trunk.

Tamara and Jiri had no idea how dangerous this attempt would prove to be.

The barred owls attacked the couple relentlessly while they strapped this bucket nest to the tree. Tamara reported that the strike to her head was so forceful that she was nearly knocked to the ground. Jiri showed me the top of his head, which revealed a mass of lacerations. Both Tamara and Jiri were valiant to complete this rescue in spite of the owl attacks.

For the next 2 weeks there was relative peace. Of course, bands of crows sometimes arrived to stir up trouble, but this is normal for an owl’s nest. Barred owls predate crow nestlings and the reverse is true for crows attacking owlets. It is unclear if the owlet had fallen from the original nest or been pushed by the sibling, but both owlets were receiving parental care for those two weeks.

Apparently, a bucket couldn’t hold “Houdini” for very long. Now the owlet was on the ground, but still not quite able to make the tree climb that would give her/him some safety from predators such as foxes and coyotes. The parents were in attendance, so Ruth and I opted to leave the family to work with the youngster, and hopefully keep it safe through the night.

Day 2: The second owlet was still in the nest, but Houdini was missing. Ruth and I were worried that a fox or coyote might have predated the owlet during the night.

We searched the property thoroughly and finally heard odd scratching sounds coming from an open shed on her neighbor’s property. Discarded construction materials filled the shed area, and there sat Houdini perched precariously on a section of aluminum pipe in an oversized plastic tub. A length of wire dangled next to an outstretched wing. If the wing became entangled, we would need to intervene.

Ruth and I made plans for goggles and bicycle helmets, but remained on standby. We took our cue from the mother owl, who was quietly coaxing Houdini to move away from the shed. Her coos were light and encouraging.

The problem for Houdini was gaining purchase on the smooth aluminum. There were flapping wings, inadequate and clumsy, scratching sounds of talons on metal, but Houdini kept sliding backward.

Finally with great effort, Houdini scrabbled up the metal in a great rush, the way a child runs up a slippery playground slide. No sooner had the owlet made it to a section of roofing material, that the ball of fluff dropped yet again, this time wedged between stacked firewood and a column of cinderblocks. Now what?

The mother owl looked quietly into the distance, and appeared nonplussed.

We waited.

Using its massive beak like an ice axe, Houdini drove the beak into the cinderblock, and hauled out of the crevice. The owlet’s wings couldn’t fully extend in the narrow space, but the beak and talons held fast, and Houdini was free again.

The mother owl flew in quickly with food that had been passed to her midair by her mate. The owl tore the head from the dead chipmunk and fed it to Houdini. One swallow, and the head disappeared. Barred Owls eat their prey head first, presumably a good idea to dispatch with the dangerous part first.

Day 3: Early evening, and Houdini has finally made it to a low tree branch. Sibling Little Bit remains in the nest cavity, poised for first flight to ground. Houdini is treated to a long grooming session with the mother barred. The affection of the mother for her owlet is tender and gentle, a good end to a busy day.

In part two, Houdini has wanderlust and Little Bit finds comfort in the owl corral.

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