Monday, April 28, 2014

Feeding Great Horned Owls: From Nest to Branch

I shared a post a couple of weeks ago about a Great Horned Owl nest I discovered in a Sycamore tree just a mile from my home. That post can be reviewed by clicking here.  I've monitored that nest almost daily since I originally discovered it. I've been able to do a quick drive-by on my way home from work and spend a little more time in the early evening hours watching the parents bring food to the chicks. Much has changed since my last post on this particular nest. Three babies outgrew and completely destroyed their nest, forcing them to "branch" despite their young age. "Branching" is normal for these owls. As they grow they leave the nest and find a perch on a nearby branch. Mom and dad bring food to them on their branches during evening hours for a couple of weeks. Over time the young owls begin to jump from one branch to another and use their wings in the process. As they fledge they take short flights until they can actually follow the parents to the food source on their own. One of the three owlets, unfortunately, ended up on the ground prematurely. A passerby noticed the owl and called the Division of Wildlife Resources. The DWR took the owl to a bird rehabilitator. I spoke to that rehabilitator and learned that the owl was in good shape and probably should have just been put back into a nearby tree. The rehabilitator will care for the owlet until it is ready to release into the wild again. I hope to be a part of that process.

It took a couple of weeks, but I was finally able to see dad for the first time. He's paler in appearance than the mom.

Here are a couple of images of Mom and babies in various stages of branching over a period of time. All three can be seen in the first image below. Note mom's tawny coloring on her chest compared to dad's pale chest above.

It's funny to see the extent of downy feathers these little guys have on their lower halves as their backs and wings develop more adult-like feathers.

Their heads resemble Brillo pads during their earlier weeks of development. This guy really looks like he's wearing some sort of Halloween costume. I smile when I see them at this curious stage.

I've found fish heads, magpie feathers, mice, and unidentified animal parts below the trees where these owls have been living over the past couple of weeks. The tail end of a Eurasian Collared-Dove was found below the tree where the three were perched one day. Cooper's Hawks eat lots of doves in that area, but they tend to empty the chest cavity rather than consume the bird from head to vent.

During the past few days the owlets have really ventured out and become almost impossible to locate during my drive-bys. Two nights ago I decided it would be easier to locate them by arriving at dusk and waiting for them to give their begging calls to the parents. That strategy worked well and I was able to re-find the two owlets by tracking their calls. I was thrilled to watch both young owls practice some of their first flights from an evergreen to a power pole about thirty feet away. One owl made it to the pole while the second was about forty feet above and away from the pole. I watched that little owl think about flying for about fifteen minutes before it actually took the plunge. It reminded me of that very first jump I took from the high diving board at the local swimming pool when I was a little kid growing up in Kentucky. The second owl nearly knocked the first one off the pole with its clumsy landing.

I knew my time with these owls was growing short when I saw the little ones taking flight. I captured some of those first flight moments on my phone video, but the quality was pretty poor. I drove home and retrieved my Nikon gear, tripod, and light. When I returned it was extremely quiet in the dark, other than the sound of rain water dripping from a roof onto a concrete pad.  The owls were nowhere to be seen or heard. I waited patiently and then heard the two owls make their begging calls again.  I heard dad start singing from the top of an evergreen. Mom then began doing her "bark" call. The whole family was communicating so I set up my Nikon D7100 and 80-400mm lens on the tripod. I tracked down the owlets and was able to capture video of mom feeding chunks of fish to one high in a deciduous tree. The video below represents some of what I saw as mom tore away and fed pieces from the front half of the fish to the baby. You should be able to watch the following videos in High Definition (1080p) so check that setting if the image quality is not sharp.

I left those two alone and positioned myself next to the trunk of a large tree. I focused my lens on the second baby who was patiently waiting for its meal on the branch of an evergreen, the same tree from which it took a flight to a power pole nearly an hour earlier. A domestic pea fowl from a nearby farm can be heard calling as well.

Moments later Mama Owl perched on and barked from the pole that earlier provided landing practice to the owlets. I can still see, in my mind's eye, mom with a fish tail dangling from her beak. What a sight! She then popped over to the second young "fuzz ball of an owl" and delivered the fish.

I wasn't able to visit the site yesterday or today so I'm rather curious about how long they will remain in close proximity. I'll check again in a night or two.

Prior to discovering the nest near my home I found one about thirty minutes from my home. That particular nest is about two or three weeks behind in the growth of the chicks I've been watching most recently. There are two owlets in that more distant nest. I will probably go check on that nest some night this week since I haven't checked for nearly a month. Here's a video clip from that nest site. I captured it nearly a month ago. It shows mom and dad and one of the owlets as it receives and completely swallows a mouse head first.

I have been fascinated with what I've witnessed with these owl families. I can see the care and discipline of the parents as they feed others before feeding themselves. There is order in the way they breed and rear a new generation. I've tried to maintain a safe and unobtrusive distance to allow these owls to continue normal activity as I've observed them. I've tried to be careful with the lighting as well. I hope that you recognize my desire to appreciate and respect these creatures. And I hope you have enjoyed vicariously seeing sights not often seen by others.


  1. Fish?? Do you suppose she caught it herself, or perhaps stole it from another bird? Interesting!

    1. I don't know where the fish came from for sure, Cecilia, but there is a community pond that gets stocked with fish and a creek less than a mile from the nest site. Great Horned Owls will take fish from water at times.

  2. What a fun article to read. Thank you for sharing.
    Jeanie Boynton
    I love owls and travel the world to see different species, Favorites are Black and White Owl and Spectactled Owl in Veracruz, Mexico, and Pearl Spotted Owlet and Great Eagle Owl in South Africa.

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment, Jeanie. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Sounds like you have seen some great owls in your travels.

  3. Hi Jeff, I volunteer with a local Utah organization called RINS - Raptor Inventory Nest Survey. I'm assigned the topo quad which includes the Mosida area around Elberta. One of the volunteers noticed your video and we were wondering if that is on the Mosida property. If so, we'd love to get it in our database and monitor it. I'm on LinkedIn if you want to add me to your contacts or you can probably send a note via this form at Just mention my name and Mosida/Great Horned Owl Nest if that's where it is and the coordinator will likely get the info to me. Thanks! - Bill Blevins (BTW, sounds like you'd be a stellar volunteer.)