Owls: Information To Help You

With spring in full bloom in many parts of the country, wildlife experts are asking people to think twice before attempting to rescue baby owls that may appear to the untrained eye to look abandoned and helpless.

According to veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Zec of Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, MO, despite appearances, baby owls often don’t need any help.

“They kind of do look helpless, right?” Zec said in a phone interview with the Springfield News-Leader. “They’re these little fluff balls with big eyes and you see them on the ground, and they look like your kid’s stuffed animal.”1

But despite looking as if they can’t possibly “survive the wilds of nature,” that’s not the case. “These babies are well-equipped to deal with nature,” said Zec.

“They can definitely get back up the tree, whether it is flying short distances or actually climbing up using its nails and beak,” Zec said. “Just because you don’t see mom nearby doesn’t mean that they’re completely alone. Usually, mom is nearby and will approach once you’re away.”


Well-Intentioned Owlet Rescues Carry Risks

During 2020, the zoo’s Raptor Rehabilitation Program took in about 25 owlets and other baby raptors that didn’t actually need medical intervention. And while it’s wonderful that people are concerned about wildlife in the area and love the raptor rehab program, ill-advised animal “rescues” can have unfortunate consequences.

For example, it takes zoo staff a good chunk of dedicated time to feed owlets, which is not only time away from other responsibilities, but time during which the baby owls can come to depend on humans. When they’re handled at such a young age, they can “lose a lot of their wild tendencies” according to Zec, and can mature into adult owls who don’t know how to hunt efficiently.

Staff treating adult owls in the rehab program try to be as hands-off as possible to better facilitate the healing to release process. With baby owls, it’s even more important to minimize handling to prevent the little ones from “imprinting” on humans.

“Imprinting is a form of learning in which an animal gains its sense of species identification. Birds do not automatically know what they are when they hatch — they visually imprint on their parents during a critical period of development. After imprinting, they will identify with that species for life.

Imprinting for wild birds is crucial to their immediate and long-term survival. For example, precocial baby birds (such as ducks, geese, and turkeys) begin the process of imprinting shortly after hatching so that they follow the appropriate adult, providing them with safety.

Imprinting allows baby birds to understand appropriate behaviors and vocalizations for their species, and also helps birds to visually identify with other members of their species so they may choose appropriate mates later in life.

The timing of the imprinting stage varies from species to species, and some species of birds are more susceptible to imprinting inappropriately on human caregivers for reasons not fully understood.”2

Care teams at the Raptor Rehabilitation Program use a variety of props to prevent imprinting, including mirrors, disguises and even puppets.

“We don’t want to release a bunch of imprinted owls because they won’t survive,” Zec said. “That is probably the hardest part about rehabbing these baby owls that don’t need to be cared for.”

If you encounter young birds, including owlets or other baby raptors that are obviously hurt (e.g., bleeding. have wing droop or are unable to stand on their own), call a wildlife rehabilitator and ask for instructions on what to do next (it’s illegal to care for wild animals without a license).

However, if the little one is on the ground and doesn’t appear hurt, keep pets away and just leave it be. You can monitor the bird from as far away as possible, knowing parents won’t return until the coast is clear and they feel safe, often many hours later.

It’s also important to note that if an owl is lying on its back and tries to resist you with its feet, that’s perfectly normal. It’s a defense mechanism (and an injury risk to you). If the bird truly needs to be rescued, leave it to the professionals to handle birds of prey.


12 Fascinating Facts About Owls

Owls are raptors, meaning they’re carnivorous (meat-eating) birds of prey. All raptors have three things in common: keen eyesight, a hooked beak, and eight sharp talons.3 A dozen fun owl facts from the National Audubon Society:4

  1. Many owl species have asymmetrical ears. When located at different heights on the owl’s head, their ears are able to pinpoint the location of sounds in multiple dimensions. Ready, aim, strike.
  2. The eyes of an owl are not true “eyeballs.” Their tube-shaped eyes are completely immobile, providing binocular vision which fully focuses on their prey and boosts depth perception.
  3. Owls can rotate their necks270 degrees. A blood-pooling system collects blood to power their brains and eyes when neck movement cuts off circulation.
  4. A group of owls is called a parliament. This originates from C.S. Lewis’ description of a meeting of owls in The Chronicles of Narnia.
  5. Owls are insanely good hunters, and they hunt other owls. Great Horned Owls are the top predator of the smaller Barred Owl.
  6. The tiniest owl in the world is the Elf Owl, which is 5 – 6 inches tall and weighs about 1½ ounces. The largest North American owl, in appearance, is the Great Gray Owl, which is up to 32 inches tall.
  7. The Northern Hawk Owl can detect — primarily by sight — a vole to eat up to a half a mile away.
  8. In fat years when mice are plentiful, usually monogamous Boreal Owls are apt to be promiscuous. Because easy prey means less work for parents feeding their young, males have been caught mating with up to three females, while females have been seen with at least one beau on the side.
  9. Barn Owlsswallow their prey whole — skin, bones, and all — and they eat up to 1,000 mice each year. (Find more info on owl digestion below.)
  10. Northern Saw-whet Owls can travel long distances over large bodies of water. One showed up 70 miles from shore near Montauk, New York.
  11. Not all owls hoot! Barn Owls make hissing sounds, the Eastern Screech-Owl whinnies like a horse, and Saw-whet Owls sound like, well, an old whetstone sharpening a saw. Hence the name.
  12. Owls are zygodactyl, which means their feet have two forward-facing toes and two backward-facing toes. Unlike most other zygodactyl birds, however, owls can pivot one of their back toes forward to help them grip and walk.


Owl Digestion Is Unique Among Raptors

If you find the idea of carnivorous birds intriguing, you might also be interested to know how owls eat and digest all that meat. (Owl digestion differs from the digestion of other raptors.)

They swallow prey whole or in big chunks, but their stomachs aren’t equipped with enough acid to break down bones, fur, feathers and scales. Since these undigested pieces and parts have the potential to damage the intestine, nature has designed an efficient method for handling undigested food: owl pellets.

Owls actually have two stomachs — the glandular stomach, and the gizzard, which is very muscular. The glandular stomach produces the acids and other secretions necessary to break down prey into digestible and indigestible parts. The gizzard’s job is to grind up the meat.

Once the gizzard has processed the meat, the digestible portion travels into the intestine. The indigestible portion, primarily bones, fur, feathers and scales, stays behind in the gizzard, which continues to grind and compress all these pieces and parts for several hours until they form into pellets.

Once a pellet is formed, it travels backward into the glandular stomach, where it remains until the owl’s body has completely absorbed all the nutrients from the food, which can take up to 10 hours or more. Once absorption of nutrients is accomplished, the pellet will continue traveling backwards and the owl will regurgitate it. At this point, the bird is ready to eat another meal!