Looking after an orphaned

Tawny Owl (cont.)


Feeding and care


Quick jumper guide

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Feeding — You'll need a supply of frozen chicks and (preferably) mice. In the first few days check for injuries that cause feeding and/or breathing difficulties..

Water — Always provide fresh drinking water.

Bathing — Owls also appreciate water to bathe in. Provide occasionally.

Restrict contact with humans . . . and pets.

Respect the owl's night-time habits. As an owlet grows it beomes increasingly nocturnal.

Give the young owl space to fly. It needs to develop wing strength and flying sense.

Injuries, health and vets — Watch your owl's health carefully and take it to the vet if necessary. Some young owls will benefit from deworming.


4. Feeding a tawny chick

In general this is the least of your problems as young tawnies will eat almost anything! But you must make sure that it gets certain requirements, and this may mean fishing out your credit card and doing a little work on the internet or phone. Owls are carnivores, and captive birds are conveniently fed on chicken chicks. Frozen chicks are now widely available, are reasonably priced, and can be delivered to your door. The same supplier may have frozen mice. These are more expensive (50p each), but it's a good idea to buy some so the owl has some idea what to look for when it's released.


4.1 Injury to the digestive tract. We need to get this out of the way first. A chick that’s fallen from the nest often hits branches on the way down and may have internal injuries as a result. If your chick has problems feeding, drinking or breathing, it has probably suffered an injury to its oesophagus, windpipe or stomach and may need to see a vet. (See 9. Injuries, health, vets below.) The problem shows up as gasping and/or other signs of pain immediately after feeding or drinking. Stop feeding solid food items immediately. You will need to feed a liquidised food or a baby food. These should have protein (meat) content. If the owl is feeding itself ithe mix can be given slightly stiff (but still liquidy) in a small feeding bowl. Otherwise feed with a plastic syringe from Boots (discard the needle!). If the owl chick is still gasping like this a week after you found it the problem may be serious and you should seek help.

Feeding liquidised mixes with a syringe isn't difficult. If the owlet is in reasonable shape it catches on quickly to the idea that the syringe has food in it and will take squirts of the contents readily. Make sure to place food as far back in the mouth as seems comfortable for the owl -- the entrance to the airpipe is at the back of the tongue. To avoid problems the consistency should be a soft paste rather than fully liquid. This 26-day-old chick was being fed this way because of a stomach injury that caused pain when solid food was given.

The syringe shown here came with a printer refill kit. Smaller ones can be bought at chemists (discard the needle!) — it just takes a little longer to feed and the mix needs to be very fine. Enlarge the plastic nozzle with a fine drill bit if necessary.

4.2 What should you be feeding the owl? Chicken chicks and/or mice. This is where you need to look up a supplier and get on the phone or internet to arrange a delivery. Search on "frozen chicks" or "frozen mice". Chicks come in one standard size. Mouse sizes range from or "pinkies", which are tiny hairless newborn mice, up to large. Large are the ones to go for. The little corpses arrive bagged and frozen. An alternative is to find out if there’s a chicken farm nearby where you can collect fresh (but dead) supplies of chicks. So many people keep carnivorous pets nowadays that one can often be found. (Warning: very occasionally a gassed chick from a farm revives, so you may find yourself keeping two birds rather than one.) A supplier we've used is Wild World Supplies, based in Epping, Essex: www.wildworldsupplies.co.uk. Look for chicks and mice under "Reptile", then "Frozen". These are now sent out packed with dry ice. Live Foods Direct, based in Sheffield, is another supplier.

Mice versus chicks? Mice are more expensive than chicks, but I'll bet a lot of bottom dollars that few rehabbers reinforce what's called "prey image" by feeding mice to orphaned tawnies earmarked for release. Owls in rehab centres are fed chicks, and that's that! Nevertheless, as wild tawnies feed on mouse-like creatures (voles, mice and rats) rather than hen chicks, it's probably a good idea to give your owl some idea of what to look for later. Another point: frozen mice tend to be white, whereas tawnies' natural prey is brown. I doubt this matters: the only thing that matters to an owl is that something that squeaks and rustles and looks like a mouse is food. The rest comes automatically. There's no evidence at all from a spate of recent release trials that human-reared tawny orphans are clueless about what they should eat in the wild. (June 2008: Wild World Supplies now have brown and black mice; ask to be sent these rather than white.)

How many? If well exercised, a young owl can be pretty voracious and get through two chicks or three mice (depending on size) a day. That's a max you may find it's more like one chick or two mice per day. So, mixing the two, a month's supply would be about 20 chicks and 40 mice. Calculate how many you’ll need until the owl is released (about 3 months' supplies), and remember that it may be handy to have a few around for after the release in case you have to feed the owl at first. It’s unlikely, but you never know.

Fish? Wild Tawny Owls have been observed fishing for their supper, so there's no harm in offering fish (raw or share your simply cooked fish meal (but not batter!)). They don't seem to rave over it though. Another useful occasional item is unshelled shrimp useful because the shell and their prickliness encourages the owl to tear it apart and the shell stimulates pellet production. On fish and fish oils, there's probably no harm in adding a small amount of cod liver oil (just a few drops) to food given in a dish. I've always given it to birds I've kept, and other bird keepers swear by it.

Liver. The liver is a large organ in many animals and so makes up a lot of what an owl gets when it eats natural prey. It's also a very nutritious food. So liver is a good supplement especially if you're having to feed cat food before getting in supplies of frozen mice etc. Give raw and don't give too much. Once you have frozen supplies you shouldn't use it.

Other. I wouldn't bother with rabbit as tawnies probably rarely eat it in the wild and it could be quite a storage problem. Although tawnies are known to eat carrion, I wouldn’t advise giving your owl anything you find dead outside. Don't for example give dead Woodpigeon, however fresh-looking, as these are known to be carrying Trychomonas, a parasite that can cause serious eating difficulties in tawnies.

Remember that when an owl eats in the wild it's not eating 100% meat (muscle) protein but is getting a mix that's dominated by "offal", which is the internal organs heart, liver, lungs and digestive tract. An owl's wild prey also includes bones, from which a proportion of the calcium is absorbed. So a solid meat diet is in no way going to reflect an owl's natural diet and you shouldn't give more than a chunk or two. Before those frozen supplies arrive, therefore, use a catfood that contains offal (most do): read the can to see what it contains.


4.3 Food preparation. Defrost chicks by placing in warm water for about two hours and dry off with kitchen tissue afterwards. Mice take less time. Alternatively wrap the mouse or chick in a kitchen wipe and place on a plate on a saucepan of water over very low heat (so the water just simmers). Turn every 15 mins so one side doesn’t get too warm. This method is slightly quicker (1 hr plus) and the mouse or chick remains dry. With either method check carefully, by gently squeezing or bending, that there’s no ice left in the corpse, which should be completely soft and floppy.

Mice can be given whole. With a very young owl (say until it can fly) I'm afraid you'll need to chop up/pull apart a chick before feeding it to the owl in bits. The mother does this, and you'll have to too. Don't give the head to a young owl as the tough, sharp beak can be dangerous. Later, encourage the owl to rip pieces off a chick rather than allowing it to try to swallow whole. This can be done by keeping hold of the chick and making the owl pull and rip at it to get morsels. You should find that the owl will quickly learn to do this of its own accord. The legs are not a risk and should be fed. Mice are usually eaten whole after being played with for a while. Owls get calcium by partially digesting the bones before they're ejected in pellets.

Feathers, fur and bones are brought up later as pellets. The owl looks as if it’s trying to sick something up and after a short time out pops a pellet. Remove pellets as the owl may try to eat them.

Emergency pellet-making materials: If you have to make do with catfood for more than a week, it's a good idea to stimulate pellet-making by adding roughage to meals. The simplest is cooked and chopped up cabbage or tomato (with the skin). Another source is bird feathers from the garden: cut larger feathers up with scissors and mix into the food; fluff feathers can be added uncut. Cut at right-angles across the feather shaft to avoid sharp edges. As a last resort I've heard that some use cotton wool. This doesn't have to be done with every meal just often enough to keep pellet-making ticking over. Say once every 2-3 days. As soon as you're feeding chicks or mice you can skip this.


4.4 Drinking water. Owls should always be given a supply of water — it's simply not true that owls don't drink. The water is best given in something that can’t be upset, like a glazed pottery dog’s bowl. The type I use are 5 in across by 2 in deep, sold by my local vet, and are perfect. Wash the bowl and replace the water every day. The owl will almost certainly try to bathe in the water, making a terrific mess by spraying water all around, so be prepared! (See bathing below.)


4.5 Cat food. Nothing wrong with this as a temporary measure (after all, cats and owls have very similar diets), but the owl may find it unappetising quite quickly. It has the disadvantage that it’s soft, with little roughage to prepare the owl for its pellet-making needs. Look for rabbit-containing mixes; fish-containing mixes are the least popular. Most cat foods will contain the offal (guts) an owl needs, but not the calcium. (See Calcium supplement in 4.8 Vitamins, below.) Young owls very quickly learn to feed themselves from a small bowl.


4.6 Human food. I’ll get my neck wrung by some owl-keepers, but you’ll find a tawny appreciates the occasional tasty (meat) tidbit off your plate. Don’t leave plates of food unattended as the owl will certainly see they get attention. The first thing you’ll know is when it lands right in the middle of your dinner. Splash!

In general, however, avoid human and artficial foods. Big no-nos are chocolate, milk and bread. See also avocado in 4.7. Never feed any of these.


4.7 Fruit. Amazingly, captive tawny owls may steal certain fruits and eat them with relish. I haven't offered fruit or veg they just take it away and eat it! I’ve yet to see harm done as a result in fact there’s evidence from pellets that in the wild some owls eat leaves, and it probably helps clean out the pellet-making apparatus. With my tawnies favoured fruits have been nectarines, plums and strawberries. Apple cores get stolen too. Cucumber and cooked cabbage are other things they've made off with and eaten. If the owl likes this sort of stuff I let it have it. Forget citrus. And, as with all birds, never offer avocado (and never leave it around). It kills.

Postscript Dec 2008: I recently got a copy of the DVD of early clips of Stripey, the famous Great Horned Owl that's the subject of the book Messages from an Owl by Max Terman. These have a reputation as the ballsiest of the North American owls, real macho predators that live on a solid diet of red meat, right? Well, a little way into the DVD there's a clip of Stripey, now living in the wild, feasting on . . . a bunch of grapes, which she's got from somewhere and is holding with one of her feet. A check with the author confirmed that she'd found them for herself — he hadn't brought them out for her. Make of it what you will, but it does seem that at least some owls' diets include green stuff and fruit.


4.8 Vitamins. For a growing owl living on frozen or cat food there’s a case for vitamin supplements. Only give products that are specifically made for birds, and follow the instructions on the pack or bottle. I use AVI-SUP (or Avi-Sup), available online from bird food suppliers like Rob Harvey (see Avi-Sup, 100 g @ 4.95 some way down the Supplements page). There's a case for considering a moult mineral-and-vitamin mix like Avi-Moult as this contains lysine and methionine, two amino acids that are needed for feather-making. Both go in the drinking water or can be sprinkled on food.

Calcium supplement. The growing owl normally gets its calcium requirements from the bones of prey it's fed by the parents. Calcium is absorbed from these bones before they're regurgitated in pellets. If for some reason you can't obtain chicks or mice there's a case for giving a calcium supplement. Here it's probably quite safe to use a human preparation like Boots' "Chewable Calcium and Vitamin D". Scrape off a very small amount on to food with a sharp knife and mix in. (Calcium is not needed for feathers, which consist almost entirely of protein.)


4.9 When to feed. Although your bird may initially be active during the day and sleep at night, you’ll probably find it quickly switches to nocturnal owl rhythms. In the wild hunting and feeding start at about 9 pm, and that’s the best time to feed. During the day it may be lethargic and uninclined to take food.

Encourage food ripping and tearing, shown here with a (ex-frozen) mouse. The owl needs to get the idea that larger prey items should be torn up and eaten in parts rather than swallowed whole. Take care when doing this the owl doesn't damage wing and taill feathers. These pics are perhaps not too good an example! Owl here is 12 weeks old.

5. Bathing

Many owls are little water freaks, and tawnies are no exception. Watching an owl take a bath is pure entertainment, and they should be given the opportunity to bathe every few days. Wait until your owl shows signs of wanting a bath the usual sign is when it tries to bathe in its drinking bowl. Put about an inch of water in a plastic tray (like the ones used for cat litter) and offer it on a table or in a large sink or draining board. Bathing can be encouraged by spraying the owl with water from a plant sprayer (but don't use one that's been used with a chemical, even if rinsed). You can even just sprinkle water over it from a tap. The owl will know how long it wants to bathe for usually about five minutes. Owl bathing is a very wet affair indeed, so cover anything within 3 or 4 feet that needs protection, like a carpet.

Owls take bathing seriously . . .

After bathing. You now have a very wet owl that may not even be able to fly up to a perch it can normally reach with ease. Wait for it to shake itself out. If it's still very wet, remove excess water with kitchen wipes. Real towels are best avoided as there's risk of feather damage. Wipe the wings down towards the tail and press water out of the body feathers under the wings. Press water out of the tail feathers. Do the head too, especially the densely packed dark feathers around the ears, which stay wettest longest. Wipe gently backwards from the top of the facial disk. Take care to avoid damaging feathers: always wipe down the body towards the tail. In cold weather there is a risk of hypothermia and you should consider using a hair dryer; use on the lowest setting as long as it's not too noisy the owl soon gets used to a dryer, though acceptance varies from owl to owl. My first owl loved it and would stand still for the 10-15 minutes it took to get him dry; the current little owl didn't appreciate it so much and used to fly off after a short time.

6. Handling and human contact

As I said earlier, I haven’t found imprinting to be a problem. I just treat my owls in a normal way, giving them occasional affection and talking to them. You may be surprised to find that once it can fly, like many captive birds the owl will avoid you and contact with you. This is hardly a sign of imprinting and is to be encouraged. As a simple rule of thumb, only make physical contact with the bird when necessary and don’t fuss it with affection more than once or twice a day. I happen to believe that an occasional show of encouragement and affection is a good thing and helps to produce an emotionally normal owl. Like any growing child, at the right time the owl will cut loose from a parent, owl or human. If I saw evidence otherwise I wouldn’t do it. There is no evidence that hand-rearing affects a young tawny's chances of surviving in the wild compared to youngsters that fledge in the wild.

The age at which an owlet is rescued can make a big difference to its tameness and handlability. Chicks found when younger than 20 days are likely to be more amenable to handling than one found at 25 days. If the owlet you have goes wild as it gets older, clacks its beak at you and resists efforts to handle it you'll simly have to show patience and understanding as there's likely to be little you can do about it. Also owls vary considerably in their temperaments.

Give the owl a name and use it. It'll learn its name quickly. It'll also learn simple words like "food", "mouse" and "chick".

When hand-rearing, you can teach the young owl to fly to your hand for food. However, you're unlikely to find that it'll come to your hand in the same way after release it's unlikely to do this unless very hungry. While in captivity it's also unlikely to come to the hand unless you're offering food.

Don’t try to pick the owl up with your hands. They really do hate it, and will let you know by protesting loudly and kicking or gripping and even biting. Picking up an owl can be like picking up a wild cat, and If you make a mistake you could get hurt.

If you have to do it (e.g. to remove the owl from danger), face the owl, grasp it firmly around the wings and pick it up gently. This is best done from above and in front (of the owl) your arms should be aligned down the line of its body. The idea is to keep your wrists well clear of those kicking feet as they could get scratched badly if caught by a claw. This will happen if you try to lift it from a perch above you as your wrists will then be within reach of the owl’s feet. When finished put the owl down gently on a solid surface, let it get its footing and release gently. You may find that it pants for a while this will soon pass and the owl will recover from the shock. The owl can be picked up from the rear; again, you need to be level with or above the bird to do it without risk of scratching. It just needs a bit of practice to get it right. Picking up an owl that's above you is not recommended as it's almost impossible not to get hurt. Coax it onto your hand instead.

Another reason for not handling an owl, as any bird, is feather damage and greasing. Handling here includes stroking. Human hands regrease soon after washing and this transfers to feathers. Much better not to let anyone stroke your owl, especially children! I once had a bird (not an owl) I had to handle a lot because he was injured, and the greased-up state of his feathers after a couple of months had to be seen to be believed. In general wash hands well with soap before handling or stroking an owl.

Tawnies don’t much mind strange human visitors, but don't have too many. The reaction to a stranger ranges from slowly blinking their blue eyelids to an eyeball-popping stare. You may also see the blue nictitating mebrane (a different thing from the eyelids and unmistakeable when displayed). Owls are perfectly capable of recognising individual humans they will take to some and object to others. However, the main idea is to keep the owl wary of humans.

Don't put your face (or let a child put its face) close to an owl. They may suddenly peck, and as they can't see well at close range they may peck an eye. For the same reason, if the owl settles on your shoulder don't turn to look at it.

Overall, you should find that your tawny chick turns into a friendly and cooperative owlet that you'll feel sad to have to put out after three months.


6.1 Pets

Many cats and dogs are terrified by owls it's those eyes. Conversely, owls are frightened by both and their reaction will vary from panicking to playing dead. Quite simply: don't take any risks . . . don't ever have the owl and a cat or dog in the same room. If a cat or dog does comes near your bird you may see the interesting phenomenon of an owl taking up its defense posture — see the pic below. Playing dead may happen if you have the owl on jesses and it tries to fly off. When it fails to escape it will hang upside down with its wings out, apparently in a catatonic trance

Other birds and small animals. A very young owl may be friendly and inquisitive about other birds you have, but later it is capable of catching small birds effortlessly they just stay put. It all happens very quickly (I know because one youngster caught my budgie twice before I banged the budgie up for its own good). If this happens you have to act very, very quickly. Rush the owl, yelling/bawling/screaming loudly to surprise it into relaxing its grip. Remove the pet gently, but don't try to pull it away if the owl has a firm or locked grip. If its grip is locked it may be too late, but try shouting at the owl and/or get someone else to help prise its toes open. Owls kill prey by tightening their grip to suffocate and to penetrate the body with the points of their claws. This tightening is instinctive and difficult to reverse. Golden rule: don't leave small pets accessible to the owl after it is able to fly.

This young owl took up a defensive posture when an adult owl was brought into the room.

7. The owl’s diurnal rhythms

As mentioned earlier, during the dependent stage before it can fly the owlet will probably accept human rhythms awake during the day and resting up at night. At this stage of its life don’t leave it out at night. It should be shut in a box or pet carrier for safety.

After it starts to fly on about day 30, it will go into reverse and take up normal tawny rhythms, sleeping or resting from soon after dawn until 5-6 pm when it’ll gradually come awake. Shutting it up at night can now become a problem as some young tawnies jump up at the box lid or roof of the pet carrier, and they may do this continuously all night. So the bird has to be left out at night. Now it can fly you may hear it thumping around the room as it exercises and lands heavily on its perches. Fortunately you’re unlikely to be woken by owl calls as these don’t develop until later. It may be a good idea to leave a very low-wattage light on in the room so the owl doesn’t do itself harm in total darkness. If the owl has learnt to treat windows with respect, don’t draw curtains as they like to see out, especially as dawn approaches.

Rule of thumb: Respect the owl’s wish to be active at night. Don’t try to force the owl into being awake during the day leave it undisturbed until late afternoon. Drawing curtains across windows will help it to rest.


8. Early flying attempts

A young tawny makes it's first short and tentative flight on about day 30 you can age the owl quite accurately in this way. Actual flying is preceded by several days during which the owl tries out its wings by flapping them vigorously while remaining on the ground. After that the owl takes about a week to be able to fly properly. First attempts can be clumsy, landing targets may be missed and the owl will fall to the ground. Simple rule of thumb here: supervise the owl carefully during its first attempts and take steps to avoid risk of injury. First flights should take place near the ground table-top height and not higher than you can reach. If necessary put blankets on hard table surfaces and edges. Over succeeding days it has to develop the strength to fly upwards. The owl is safe when it’s mastered the art of flying and landing with confidence. The learning to fly bit is not a big problem and safety depends largely on the features of the room it’s in. In a really safe room you wouldn’t even need to worry about supervising those first attempts.

Most owls become pretty good at dealing with rooms and as long as reasonable precautions are taken you should find that neither the owl or objects in the room come to harm.


9. Injuries, health, vets

By far the worst potential problem is the injuries that may be sustained when the chick falls to the ground. I won’t go into these here as it’s an extensive subject. If you suspect that the chick you’ve picked up is injured, take it to a rehabilitator or vet. Your local vets may not have a bird specialist in the practice, but they should be able to give the bird an examination and, if necessary, advice on where to go if they are unable to do more for the owl. Some vets reduce or even waive their fees for injured wild animals. Good owl rehabilitators are likely to know of a vet who can examine and treat birds.

Injuries result from hitting branches during the fall from the nest and impact with the ground. Obvious signs of injury are blooded and bruised wings, dried blood around the beak, and damaged or broken toes. Less obvious are injuries higher up the legs and, of course, injuries to internal organs and bones in the body. As mentioned earlier, gasping after feeding or drinking is an indication that there’s damage to the digestive tract, including the oesophagus (roughly speaking, the throat). There can also be damage to the windpipe. Hidden internal injuries may lead to death in a few days. Check your bird over carefully, but don’t do anything that requires extending the wings or legs. If the bird continues to show signs of pain or discomfort you should be thinking about a visit to the vet. Prepare yourself for the possibility that the bird may have to be put down.

If your owl made a safe landing and there are no signs of injury you should have no problems except . . .

Worms! Two of three little owls I’ve brought up have had worms. These come from prey they’ve been given by the parents and are perfectly normal. If your owl has worms you’ll see them sooner or later in the poo usually a single long and rather wiry thing that may move slowly. I give my owls a better start in life by giving a poultry dewormer. Get it from the vet and at the same time the owl will be given an examination. Two doses of wormer at the interval recommended on the package are usually necessary the first one doesn’t always do the job. This is another job requiring a (needle-less!) syringe. It's easy to do (a quick squirt down the back of the throat), but ask the vet to give the doses if you feel you can't do it.



A useful link

Here's a link to a story that'll flesh this guidance out a bit. It's by a lady from Florida who brought up and released a Barred Owl chick called Sushi. These North American owls are close relatives of Tawny Owls, so the story isn't entirely irrelevant. In fact it's both instructive and inspiring, and I used it as a guide when I reared and released my first owl. Here it is. I can't recommend it enough.

Sushi's Tale


Next page: Preparing for release.

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A chick being fed at the local rescue centre. This one and its sibling were brought in from a farm at an unusually late age about 28 days. It's being fed chicken chick giblets.