A very concerned landowner southeast of town contacted the nature center to report that two fuzzball owlings had become lost from their nest. Baby birds, like Barred Owls, leave their nests every spring as fledglings to spend time on the ground in their quest for flight. They may be cute, but are not often pretty or recognizable and are sometimes mistaken for injured adults and are brought to the nature center for rehabilitation. Fledglings should be left alone so that they may learn to fly and to live independently, but these were no fledglings; their eyes were not open and their feathers were only fluff. At this stage in a birds development they belong in the nests. Outside of the nest they are subject to predation and will not be able to feed themselves (thats mom's job!)
The friendly landowner introduced us to the tree under which she discovered the babes- just a short walk and a fence-hop from her long wooded driveway. Barred Owls are cavity-nesters, meaning that eggs are laid in secluded holes and crevasses off of the ground.
It appeared likely that the tree could have hosted a healthy nest because it had the most obvious 'cavity' in sight- a large hole where the trunk began to branch out. The tiny things were carried in a comfy shoebox to the base of the tree with a ladder and the saving operation would have be over quickly.
Our devoted crew searched through the grassy understory for evidence of a nest above- feathers and gaks would have suggested that we were in the right spot, but we found nothing. Bill climbed the ladder to investigate the suspected hole, but found no evidence there, either.
So many mysteries were discussed!
Why were the babies evicted from their nest? What did it? Where was the nest?
The spot where they were recovered was isolated by a fast creek and a driveway. babies this young could not have gotten far enough on their own for their nest to have been anywhere else but in our likely tree, and even if they could, they probably would not have been found together as they were.
We moved the ladder around the trunk so that Bill could climb to investigate another hole, though this one was much smaller than the original. He stuck his hand in and explored it as deep as he could, as he had done earlier, but still found nothing. The nests location was becoming an even deeper mystery.
The owls may have been kicked from the nest by the loving parent of a different species. Birds like jays and cowbirds are notorious for confiscating established nests and nesting sights by throwing existing eggs or babies out and laying their own eggs. It would take a courageous jay to face an angry mom-owl many times its size!
Maybe our babies had fled the nest to escape something else?
We continued to search the ground for even the smallest clue of a nest and Ruth discovered a feather-possibly belonging to an owl- deep in the grass very close to the original hole. We considered that feathers and such may have been washed away by recent severe storms and Bill had to give the hole another look.
He climbed higher on the ladder this time and began to dig into the soggy dirt and dead wood at it's bottom.
He tossed the soggy compost to the ground, one handful after another, until the remains of the nest appeared- fluff, feathers, poop and all! The mood lightened just then and Ruth strapped a backpack carefully loaded with the fragile chicks with Bill continued to puzzle over their eviction.
From the top of the ladder and before blue skies and the first canopy greens of spring he announced his discovery of a spout which emptied into the nest- a drenched hole which could easily have funneled rain-water into the main trunk of the tree from the rotted hole on the top of a branch above.
I imagined the dramatic flooding of the nest from the small hole hidden directly above the helpless babes. The owls may have been wet with direct rain water before it began its torrential poor. Maybe a trickle first, then a steady pour as the storm- perhaps the second or third of the system as they're likely to ravage this part of the state- raged violently around them. What would it feel like to rely on a the delicate trunk of a tree for your life as it is torn and beaten by winds more awful than you knew could exist?
The water would have to have come quickly so that it could fill many feet of the hollowed tree and reach the floating babies to the top.... just a couple of days ago many parts of the county were flooded by such a storm. The hardy hatchings had endured all this and a potentially fatal drop, too- also avoiding hypothermia, hungry predators and starvation on a foreign earth. Still they were alive and well.
The story, however unlikely, was all that we could think of and it appeared that our blind, bald babies were not so helpless after all.
Styrofoam, wire mesh and the toolbox were recruited to plug the hole. Bill spent several minutes ensuring, to the best of his ability, that the nest would not be flooded again and that it would be ready to host its owlings once again. Ruth carried them to the nest and set them inside carefully. Then I climbed with the camera-
What an experience! Thank you Bill!!!