Growing up barred – Part 2: personal care

The young barred owls that I observed this past summer at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve could be found rather predictably in two places at the reserve, both of which were near water. They were quite beautiful to see.

Barred owls (Strix varia) are the only owls in the Eastern USA who have brown rather than yellow eyes. When adult, barred owls have short feathers on their heads but no ear tufts. Their eyelids are also feathered. The juveniles still have fuzzy down feathers on their heads and pink, barely feathered, eyelids as you can see here.

     

Adult barred owl                                                                Young barred owlet

Their feathers extend down their legs and feet right up to their talons. The owls’ claws are less curved than other raptors’ talons which makes it possible for them to squeeze their prey to death.

  

  

As they grow, the young ones will groom often, pulling out downy feathers.

    

They frequently stretch out their wings and tails when grooming.

                    

  

Baths were also a welcome form of personal care.

  

This was especially so during our very hot summer days. The fact that I was standing about 5 feet away did not deter the owlets from enjoying vigorous dunkings in the water ditch.

 

I did not see them bathe at the same time; they appeared to take turns. Perhaps each one was keeping watch for the other one when they were vulnerable.

The siblings did indeed seem to be very aware of each other’s activities and when I observed them, they didn’t stray far from one another. The next blog will show a little of their interactions.

 

Growing up barred – Part 1: becoming independent

From the ages of about 8-19 years, I lived in a house that had a nice backyard and was not too far from some neighborhood woods with a creek. As a child, I read under backyard trees, planted a flower garden and played in the woods with friends. While I became familiar with squirrels, robins, frogs and some bugs and loved being outdoors, I didn’t spend lots of time looking for wildlife. And I never saw an owl in the wild.

Now decades later, I’ve had the good fortune to learn a good deal about various members of the wildlife community while spending time finding and watching them. And in the past couple years, I’ve been privileged to see owls up close in the wild; for example, the owl below was perched next to a pathway at dusk when I walked by a few days ago.

This past summer was unique for me, however, because I was able to observe a pair of juvenile barred owls (Strix varia) at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve as they set off on their life’s journey outside the nest. I’d like to share a bit of what I saw with you in a three-part blog. This one is about them finding their independence. The next two will focus on their grooming and interactions.

Barred owl pairs usually bond for life; if one mate dies, the survivor will seek another partner soon after. They tend 2-4 eggs, which hatch after 4 weeks’ brooding and the young leave the nest after four or five weeks. They remain dependent on their parents for food for some time after that even though they may be almost as large as the adults at 16-25 inches in length (40–63 cm); their wing span can stretch up to 3-4 feet (38-49 in, 96–125 cm).

When I first spotted the young owls in June, they could already fly. Nevertheless, they did need to find their balance occasionally as they perched and moved along branches and snags.

 

The owlets were making a keening noise the first time I saw them. At first, I didn’t recognize it, and I thought perhaps some small mammal was in distress.

Eventually, the plaintive call helped me locate them above me in a tree. This particular call apparently is used by the babies to call to their parents. I figured mom or dad was close by as the owlets kept looking upwards and eventually the parents did fly in with a meal – crayfish as far as I could tell.

 

On several occasions over the next 6 weeks or so, I would hear the owlets making that keening call and staring upwards. I figured the parents were nearby, but they were obviously just keeping an eye on their offspring and not feeding them (at least not when I was there).

It was time for the young ones to learn how to get their own meals.  Although barred owls usually hunt at dawn and dusk, the young owls were busy looking for food during the day. The mammals they eat include voles, mice, shrews, squirrels, rats, rabbits, bats, moles, opossums, mink, and weasels. Birds are also a food source and their prey may include woodpeckers, grouse, quails, jays, icterids, doves, pigeons, cardinals, cedar waxwings and grackles. They also eat amphibians, reptiles and insects (e.g., snakes, slugs, lizards, frogs and toads, salamanders, crayfish, turtles, scorpions, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers) and it was the latter group of prey animals that I saw the owlets hunting. Here for example, it appears one young owl had caught a crayfish.

One day, one of the pair was grasping a twig in its beak; I’m not sure what it was doing but it seemed to have some purpose. Perhaps it was testing how strong its beak was.

  

That a strong beak can be an asset became apparent on another occasion. One of the juvenile owls suddenly flew from one tree on the other side of a water ditch to one above my head. There was much rustling of branches and leaves and when I got into a spot where I could see the bird, it became obvious s/he had caught the largest stag beetle I had ever seen at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. It appears that the giant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus) drinks tree sap, which must have been what it was doing when the owlet got hold of it. The problem for the owl was how to eat the beetle when those large pincers were in the way.

     

The owl would try to grab hold of a pincer but lose its grip; s/he would turn the beetle around but was having a very difficult time getting those defensive appendages off. This went on for quite a long time, which made me feel a bit sorry for the beetle.

 

Finally, the owl had success and was able to settle in for a crunchy meal.

 

They expel the indigestible parts of their prey in owl pellets that they cough up regularly. Here you see the contents of one a friend found under a favorite perching branch at the reserve.

Another day I saw one owlet suddenly fixate on the water ditch.It turned out that quite a large rat snake (Elaphe obsolete; Pantherophis alleghaniensis) was swimming by. The owl watched it carefully as it climbed out of the ditch and eventually crossed the adjacent walking path, never making a move to tackle the reptile. I had remarked on this encounter to the reserve’s land manager, who said it was probably a smart move on the owlet’s part, since the snake was large enough that it could have wrapped around the owl’s head and choked it.

The young owls seemed to have learned a lot about life as a predator as they grew older. It was fascinating watching them explore their world.

Next up: how the owlets cared for themselves.

Avian generations in the making – part 3B: fledgling and post-fledgling care

The number of days after hatching when young altricial birds leave the nest is fairly predictable for many species; knowing those approximate dates is helpful if you want to plan a day to watch fledging happen. I can often arrange to sit and watch a nest box on the appointed day for several hours.This has enabled me to see several broods of Eastern bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches make their leaps to freedom on the path to adulthood.

When it is time for fledging, parent birds encourage their babies to leave the nest. They may entice them by perching nearby with some food but not bringing it to them. Or they fly to the box with food and then go to a branch instead of feeding. The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in my yard will hover in front of the nest box like a hummingbird, sometimes with food in their mouths; perhaps they are showing the young ones that flight involves flapping wings.

While in some species, parents appreciate help from older children in caring for a current brood, Eastern bluebirds apparently do not. This may be because they see the previously fledged young as competitors for food. In my yard, father bluebird especially was chasing the young of earlier nests away from the feeders, not only when they begged but also when they fed themselves.

 

When fledging day arrived for the bluebirds’ third brood, one of the older siblings (I’m not sure if it was a female or male) was very interested in seeing the third brood fledge. He imitated his parents, hovering in front of the nest box so the young ones could see him.

 

Again, however, the parent bluebirds chased him away.

This did not deter the immature bird, however. He waited for the parents to go get food and again took on encouraging the young siblings. It was fascinating to watch!

 

The parents returned and drove him off with a show of bad temper.

Eventually, the babies did fly out of the nest box into a nearby crepe myrtle. There, they continued to call for food with a wide-open mouth.

    

This gaping behavior stimulates the parents to feed their offspring and the offspring can be very insistent and persistent in begging for food.

    

Eastern starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

     

Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus)

  

Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)     Royal tern   (Thalasseus maximus)

This behavior can go on for days, especially when the young ones cannot yet fly, like this recently fledged Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).

 

 

The birds that feed their young ones on the ground, like the American robins (Turdus migratorius) have it a bit easier than those that feed juveniles perched on wires, like these barn swallows (Hirundo rustica).

   

I can imagine that the mother and father get to a point of thinking, “Enough already!” as those large fledglings continue to beg for food; this parent Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) did not seem willing to go out for yet another bug for the young one.

But some young birds can be very insistent, even when it is obvious that they are now fully capable of finding some food on their own. This parent chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) seemed willing to be a feeder for a while longer.

                        

The parent-child feeding routine that often catches people’s eye is when a young brown-headed cowbird is being fed by a (non-voluntary) adoptive parent. For example, here we see a male hooded warbler (Setophaga citrina) bringing food to a brown-headed cowbird baby (Molothrus ater) after the youngster spent quite a while loudly crying out for a meal and hopping around on branches after the parent to convince him that he needed to be fed.

  

Of course, at a certain point the parents do stop feeding and the young set off on their own. They may check out nearby nest boxes, either scouting homes for next season or looking for roosting boxes for the cold winter nights, like these Eastern bluebirds. They may groom a bit to remove the last bits of fluffy feathers, like this red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus). And then they are ready to spend an autumn and winter getting ready to repeat the cycle, this time as the parent birds. And we can look forward to watching the process again. 😊

 

        

Mama and Papa house wren to the rescue!

A few times each day, I walk outside with my 18.5-year-old cat, Jonahay, who is deaf and has some other ailments. He used to be an indoor-outdoor cat until I decided that it was better not to let him roam the neighborhood.

 

 

He rarely killed anything; he just wanted to mark his territory (which he still does) and occasionally he would catch moving things and bring them inside.

Thankfully, he didn’t bring me dead birds or animals; I did have to capture baby rabbits, chipmunks and a snake or two so they could go back outside. Now he just walks around and sleeps on the porch with me at his side; chipmunks and squirrels walk by him as they know he won’t chase them.

This afternoon as I was vacuuming, Jonahay came to ask for a walk, so I paused to take him outside for a few minutes. When we got to the side yard, I was surprised by a pair of house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) who were chittering vigorously and loudly in a cedar tree above me. They had not nested in my yard this year but do visit once in a while.

 

As I moved, they moved with me, continuously calling – their vocalization was very obviously directed at me, but I didn’t see any young ones anywhere so I wasn’t sure why they were so upset.

One of them – the male, I presume – only paused his calling for a few seconds when he groomed a little. I kept looking around for what might be upsetting them but didn’t see anything. Jonahay indicated we could go inside and the wrens had to let me leave.

 

As I took the vacuum cleaner into the kitchen, which opens onto a screened-in porch, I suddenly noted a few tiny feathers on the floor. If the wrens hadn’t been “yelling” at me, I might have just glanced down and thought they were bits of cat toy or fluff. But now I was more alert!

I called my two other (indoor) cats and they didn’t come, which was suspicious. Even when they look at animals through the windows and screens, they will usually react if I speak to them. When I entered the laundry room on the other side of the kitchen, there were Moasi (shown left)  and Ogi (right), sitting on the washer and dryer watching a juvenile wren perched on the window sill!

I don’t know how the bird got into the house. Likely, it had been early in the morning when I opened the porch door for a few minutes as I put out bird food, but I had not seen the bird on the porch when I re-entered. During the morning and early afternoon, I hadn’t noticed the cats chasing anything either so the mystery remains. I hadn’t been outside much with all my chores so perhaps those parents had been calling for him all that time.

In any event, I shooed Moasi and Ogi out of the room and proceeded to open the window. The little wren jumped into a plastic container near the window and that enabled me to easily move him/her to the open window. The bird waited a minute (enabling me to quickly get his photo) and then flew out to freedom – and obviously to a pair of anxious but effectively protective parents!

     

Swallow sibling spats – who gets the food??

Mother Nature came through for me again a week ago, treating me to an interesting session of cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) behavior. (I first thought they were barn swallows but then noted they didn’t have deeply forked tail feathers.) I had noticed the swallows flying high above me as I walked to a favorite birding spot where I hoped to see hummingbirds feeding on the profusely blooming trumpet vines. Instead, I got a lesson on how swallow siblings may interact.

Occasionally a couple birds would come very near one another in flight. My attempts to get good shots were however stymied by their very swift swooping.  As I came upon the structure where I would position myself for the next 80 minutes, I noticed five swallows sitting on a wire, all of them preening and grooming. It was only after taking multiple photos and one flying off that I realized the group included both adults and juveniles.

 

At one point, all but one flew away; he (assuming a male for convenience’s sake) was alone for a good bit of time. Occasionally, he would stretch his feathers or teeter on the wire; I wondered if he had hurt his wings and was therefore staying put, unable to fly.

It turned out that he was just waiting for a parent to arrive with food. The bird would stretch his wings and put them out a bit to help with balance but otherwise didn’t move except when a parent came within earshot. Then he began fluttering his wings and calling with an open mouth guaranteed to trigger the instinct to stuff something down it.

   

Sometimes, this meant having to turn his head 180° to get it in the right position for the deposit of an insect. This had the desired results.

The bird was alone on the wire for perhaps 20 minutes or so – and then was joined by a couple others. They looked a bit bigger and more developed but I finally realized that these were the bird’s siblings, who had been doing more to practice their flight capabilities.

  

“Wire” bird maneuvered his way down the wire in stages to end up right next to, and then almost on top of, one sibling. He almost seemed to be pecking the bird. This did not go down well and finally brother/sister left after wire bird moved back and forth.

 

The parents arrived sporadically with food, perhaps hoping that wire bird would finally take off – and then he finally did, showing he was not injured at all. I think he simply wanted to have table service and figured staying on the wire with an open mouth was easier than having to try catching lunch on the wing like his siblings.

   

Two siblings finally decided to perch on the wire, too, all making sure to keep some distance between themselves. Perhaps they were tuckered out after all those flights; one took a few naps between visits from mom and dad.

Wire bird was very good at attracting his parents’ attention so the other two tried to become more vocal and began fluttering their wings more as well. They also moved closer to him, likely hoping to intercept a meal.

  

 

Things became a bit more difficult for the parents, who could scarcely alight on the wire before having the food snatched away!

 

 

 

  

Then, one of the siblings seemed to have had enough of wire bird’s success and approached him – to wire bird’s dismay.

They had a little spat!

 

  

  

Sibling No. 2 also took a turn at wire bird – they seemed to be saying that enough was enough and he had to stop monopolizing mom and dad’s attention, care and feeding.

   

  

When a crow arrived, everybody flew off in a panic but it wasn’t long before wire bird was back in place. Mom and dad began arriving much more regularly and the siblings decided being on the wire would be more productive than trying to find their own food. The parents finally began feeding the siblings more and everyone seemed to be pleased with that arrangement.

Towards the end of my 80-minute observation stint, I reflected on how patience showed me much more of what was happening than I had first assumed. If I had left after 20 minutes, I might have gone away feeling sorry for wire bird, thinking he couldn’t fly well and had to rely on his faithful parents. It was only by staying and watching that I saw the nest mates have their spats and I had a new narrative to explain the behavior I was seeing.

 

It would be so interesting to be a researcher who follows the development of a species, avian or otherwise. When I was younger, I probably didn’t have the amount of patience needed to spend more than an hour in position to see what would happen next. Now it was a sore arm from holding up my heavy camera and zoom lens that ended my session. But I’m grateful that I have the time and calm now to watch and wait and wonder about what will happen next. And other than the camera equipment and gas expenses, it’s an inexpensive way to keep learning and enjoying the fabulous natural areas that still remain.