Sunday, May 8, 2011

Owlet Family Portrait and No. 5 Grows Up

I brought down the nest box late this afternoon to install the owlet rail. Fortunately, as I was in the process of assessing what pieces of its mount I'd have to replace, I discovered that (once again) I'd made a spare. So, the only part I actually had to replace was the branch that forms the rail. The old one would probably have been fine, but I tripped over it while owlet herding, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Nest box with new owlet rail.

Owlet herding? Oh, yeah. The first owlet could leave the nest any time now, even tonight (as, indeed, it did; see below), so this may very well have been my last opportunity to take a family portrait that shows the owlets essentially in their “brancher” configuration. Of course, the portrait didn't include the adults. The adults were there, but they confined their participation to clicking in occasional protest, and swooping down to hit me in the head during one of my owlet herding efforts.

Taking the family portrait proved to be complicated enough that the photographic opportunity it represented wasn’t fully realized. The owlets were more interested in testing their flying skills (not bad, by the way) and exploring the world, than they were in standing together side-by-side to be photographed. Having to put down the camera, and go round up an owlet or two every time that happened didn’t allow opportunities for carefully checking the results and adjusting camera settings accordingly. Nonetheless, with good subject material, you’re halfway to good photos, and I had very good (if uncooperative) subjects, so I think I managed an acceptable portrait in the end. Well … decide for yourself....

Best guess caption, from left to right: Owlets 2, 3, 1, 4 and 5 (the adoptee).

The first owlet left the nest box at around 9:20 PM tonight, almost exactly on schedule. Having observed that, I went outside to keep an eye on my young friend. For ten minutes or so, the owlet stood on the rail, and studied its options. It then flew a good distance to a lower limb, paused there for a few minutes, then flew somewhere else. A quick search turned-up the owlet (now a “brancher”, technically) on the ground below its previous perch. What it had in mind to do next, I don’t know. What I had in mind was getting it off the ground and into a large tree with lots of foliage to hide in, which is exactly what I did, under the watchful eyes, and occasional attacks, of the adults. At one point, I found myself standing under the relevant tree with the owlet perched on the hand of my outstretched arm, while I waited for the owlet to step off my hand and onto the tree limb directly in front of it. One of the adults was waiting on the same limb, not ten feet away, watching us both intently, and calling to the owlet, who saw no good reason to give-up a perfectly good perch (my hand) to join mom/dad on the limb. As usual, I had to pry the youngster off/out of my fingers and place it on the limb, a situation it seemed to find no more or less agreeable than perching on my hand. Nonetheless, that tree can provide a lot more places to explore and hide in than I can, and the adults were a lot happier with the owlet in the tree, so I think that was the right move for all concerned.

If I had to guess, I’d say that was owlet no. 5, the adoptee, who was always a little bit bigger, and a lot more adaptable to strange situations (undoubtably due to its early, positive exposure to the very strange situation of being raised by Sallie, my raptor rehabilitator friend), than its acquired siblings.

By the way, screech owls normally keep a low profile, and do not do things like attack people. Ordinarily, they merely observe people, just as they observe any other part of their environment that does interesting things. However, during the week or so that they have flightless branchers, their attitude changes completely, and anyone caught after dark in an area where a brancher is located becomes a potential target for attack. (A brancher can fly a bit, but can't stay in the air for long, and, at first, often can’t hold altitude during flight, so “flightless” isn’t a perfect term, but it’s basically correct.) Once the branchers have learned to fly, and thus become fledglings, the adults calm down dramatically, and basically go back to being their usual, calm, low-profile selves. But, once a year, for a week or so of nights, they’re hyper-defensive, and prove that within those tiny breasts hidden under camouflage feathers beat the hearts of lions. Don’t hold it against them; admire it – even while you’re washing out your talon scratches.

Owlet no. 5 when he/she was added to the nest on April 24th.
(Yes, there is a spot of green food coloring marking its head.)
The family portrait was shot just 13.9 days later, and no. 5 left the nest only 1½ hours after that.
Good luck, you splendid little punk.


  1. Yay #5!!! What a fantastic owlet year this has been! :D

  2. "Good luck, you splendid little punk" brought tears to my eyes. Good work, both of you. And smashing family portrait.

  3. Susan G.11:38 AM CDT

    Yeah, what a wonderful report and yes the photos come out very nice. Happy to see all the owlets looking healthy and happy. thanks for your hard work.

  4. Wonderful portrait: you make it look so effortless that, without your description, I would have thought you just waved your hands and they all lined up and watched the "mousy".
    I am glad we still have four more to enjoy for a short while longer.

  5. These little screechlets are so cute, I thought my head was going to explode upon looking at your pictures.

  6. Anonymous9:39 AM CDT

    2011 is the best of my 5 yrs watching. Love the portait. You are enabling me to see what is going on in my cameraless box.I know we have 3 owlets. Thanks!
    Ann - Houston

  7. Once again, I feel a little sad and whistful when the season is over.....but I am so happy this was yet another successful year! They were so much fun. I loved looking at the current and recent stills in the box and always laugh when one of the owlets appears to be posing for of inspecting the camera lens. I miss that when it isn't part of my daily routine. :-) Thank you so, so much for everything you do and for sharing this with the world.

  8. Robin in Southlake6:13 PM CDT

    I LOVE the owlet family portrait! Once again, thank you for sharing your screech owls. My pair was back in January and February and then they disappeared, much to my dismay. I haven't seen them since, yet I heard one only once, early one morning. Good work Chris! I'm already looking forward to next year!

  9. Karen T.5:26 PM CDT

    Great family portrait!! What a dashing group of raptors. We have our first owlet this year. Exciting to see all your knowledge and experience with them. Adding the perch railing to the box is a great idea. Keep up the great work.