an orphaned Tawny Owl chick

Our first orphan, Owly, the day after we found him in May 2003. In this pic he's about 19 days old. That's his sister, Sophie, at top left. Same parents, same nest, but she fell two years later.

Important note: This guide applies only to young Tawny Owls and not to any other owl or bird. To age a found chick refer to my First 100 days pages. (One day I'll do this in more detail as the chick's age is critical in deciding whether it should be picked up or left.)

 

Let's kick off with an important question.

 

1. SHOULD YOU GO AHEAD WITH REARING THE OWL?

Should you really be keeping the owl in the first place, or would it be better to hand it over to a rehabilitator? Here are the circumstances in which you should be seriously considering contacting a rehabilitator or owl rescue centre. I've put them in rough order of importance. Doubt on any one of them would mean it's better to let someone else do it.

 

DON'T KEEP THE OWL IF . . .

in any way you're not confident about your ability to keep and release a specialist bird. Previous experience with birds or bird rescue is a plus point here.

the owl has an injury (eyes, limbs, internal) that will affect its ability to survive in the wild.

you won’t be able to release the owl in a suitable area around mid-July.

you don't have a place you can keep the owl for three months. It should not be kept in a box or small cage, and it needs space to fly later. Ideally it needs a flight cage or dedicated room.

you can't provide the owl with the food it needs (chicks and mice — frozen supplies can be bought).

you’re out most of the day and the owl will be left unattended. Taking on the owl will be a major commitment.

you have (especially young) children.

keeping the the owl will expose it to any kind of physical risk, e.g. dog, cat, miscellaneous domestic hazards.

you can't tolerate a bird that will make a large amount of mess that's often foul-smelling.

The other side of the coin is that a little Tawny Owl can be very easy to look after and release is not difficult (though finding a good area to release it in may be). You should find it friendly and amenable, and provided it's not injured and properlylooked after it won't die on you!

 

1.1 Finding a rehabilitator or rescue centre

A local vet is probably your best bet for tracking down owl rehabilitators in your area. If you've found a chick, so will many others in the past, and a local vet is often the first port of call. They have to know the local raptor experts or they'd be swamped! If the owl has an injury you may have to visit the vet anyway.

Here is a link to the UK Animal Rescuers Birds page. A useful link, not listed there, is the Raptor Rescue website. They have a helpline number where someone will try to put you in touch with local assistance.

You'll need to check with the rehabilitator or rescue centre whether they will be able to release the owl later in the summer. Some may be unable to do this because they have too many other birds to look after, or because there is no suitable release area. But one contact should lead to another.

Remember that it's only considerate to make a donation to the rehabilitator or rescue centre. The owl has to be housed, fed and looked after for over two months before it can be released, and many rescue centres are run by kind-hearted people with slender means. Think 25 rather than 5. The true cost (time, housing, food and sometimes veterinary attention) is probably more like 50-100.

 

1.2. Finding a suitable place for release

Having somewhere suitable to release the owl when it's about three months old is essential to success. The release itself is actually a very simple affair, but If the location is unsuitable (occupied by other tawnies, near busy roads, or doesn't have the right features), the owl's chances of survival will be reduced. You'll need to start thinking about where to release the owl fairly early. For more details have a quick look at Choosing an Area to Release the Owl.

 

1.3 Can you house and look after the owl properly?

As most of us don't have flight cages conveniently to hand, you're going to have to keep the owl indoors. That pretty much means giving it a dedicated room while it's with you. Keeping an owl in a room that's in general use by other occupants of the house could be asking for trouble and may expose the owl to all kinds of hazards. For example it will perch on the tops of open doors, where its feet will get badly injured when someone shuts the door unaware that the owl's on it. Kitchens are not good places to keep owls. If the owl suffers a permanent injury it cannot be released and will have to be cared for all its life.

I wouldn't advise keeping the owl in a small cage — i.e. one that's too small for it to fly in. The only kind cage for a tawny is a flight cage at least 10 ft long. You'll need to make sure the owl can and does exercise its wings.

Feeding is very easy once you get in a supply of frozen chicks and, preferably, some mice.

 

1.4 Looking after an owl is a big commitment

It may not be quite a full-time job, but for three months or so the owl will need frequent attention. There's feeding every day and the business of clearing up messes. Owls are happy to be left alone for quite long periods but you can't leave it like that indefinitely (e.g. all day while you're at work) if you want it to be amenable, i.e. reasonably tame and approachable. You're going to constantly have to think of little details like keeping doors and windows closed. At all times there's the question of safety — both of the owl and of people who come into contact with it, especially children. And you're going to have to spend some time finding and investigating the location where you plan to release it.

 

2. OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

 

2.1 The legal situation

When I last checked (in 2006), the legal situation in England and Wales is that you are allowed to have an orphaned Tawny Owl in your possession without a license provided that you intend to release it when it is capable of surviving in the wild. This response was received in response to an enquiry I made to English Nature (now Natural England), who handle licensing on behalf of Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). The relevant licensing comes under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Interestingly, I was having to enquire as I had an owl whose release had then been delayed by a year due to circumstances beyond my control. More recent checking with Defra's Bristol office confirmed this picture: you do not need to obtain a license if you are rehabilitating a tawny chick you've rescued after finding it on the ground. (A license allows you to do something; registration applies to a specific bird.)

Whether this means that it's legal to do so is another matter, but those administering the relevant licensing clearly take the sensible view that no harm is done in such cases and a blind eye is turned. However, in case the regulations change you'd be advised to check using the contacts below. Strictly, it is illegal to keep any bird taken from the wild in captivity, and specifically it is illegal to "Have in one's possession or control any live bird of prey of any species in the world (with the exception of vultures and condors) unless it is registered and ringed in" (see NatureNet link below).

As of January 2008 Natural England handles all general licences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) on behalf of Defra. They are now the people to go to for information and licences, so start on this page: Wildlife Management & Licensing Service. Natural England's telephone number for general and licensing enquiries is 0845 601 4523 (local rate), or email your enquiry to wildlife@naturalengland.org.uk. I found no guidance on the site about the legal situation or licensing requirements, if any, relating to fallen Tawny Owl nestlings (July 2008).

Summary: You do not require a license to keep a Tawny Owl chick for the purpose of rehabilitating it. But it would be wise to safeguard yourself by checking with Natural England before deciding to go ahead.

NatureNet: Wild birds and the law Gives a very basic summary of what is and is not permitted under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Defra News Release: Jan 2008 news release from Defra on important impending revisions to the bird registration scheme in England. At a quick glance it looks as though these may signal a (still) more relaxed attitude to those taking in wild birds of unthreatened species for rehabilitation, but then again they may not. The statements are conflicting. And this news release applies to bird registration, not the licensing of activities to do with birds.

 

2.2 Imprinting

This is often given as a reason why members of the public should not rear orphaned tawnies and should leave the job to an experienced rehabilitator. It's even claimed that an "imprinted" owl is totally unsuitable for release. Imprinting on a human is supposed to happen when a bird becomes psychologically orientated towards its keeper to the extent that it thinks the human is its parent or mate.

It's a matter of scientific fact that strictly neither type of imprinting is possible with a rescued tawny nestling as imprinting on a parent (owl) happens in the first hours of a chick's life and the young bird will not mature sexually until well after you have released it. The owl may become quite tame and friendly, but that's a separate phenomenon. For the owl's sake you should certainly avoid making it too tame or accustomed to humans. When the time for release comes you should find that however tame the owl may have seemed in your home it will revert dramatically quickly to a wild state.

Let’s just say here that I have not found imprinting to be a problem when rearing orphaned tawny owls, and nor have others. Hand-reared tawnies can be (and are) successfully released into the wild.

 

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This section's undergoing extensive revision at the moment (July 2008). Apologies for any glitches and unfinished bits while this is being done.