Looking after an orphaned Tawny Owl (cont.)
Release and after
13. When to release
Best is probably mid-July, when many first-year owlets will be three months old and there are at least two months of favourable weather ahead. The tough times for young tawnies are their first November and February, when food can be short, so they need as much time as possible before then to find the favourable hunting sites in their area.
Also consider the phase of the moon around the time of release. Yes, I'm quite serious! The better light conditions in the two weeks either side of full moon will help the owl find its way around unfamiliar territory. Conversely, the pitch dark of new moon nights could put an inexperienced owl at considerable disadvantage. Here's a nice site to check out the phase of the moon at the time you plan to release: Woodlands Junior School, Kent, moon page. Choose a time when the moon is half full and waxing. That'll give the owl a couple of weeks before the nights start getting dark.
Another thing to check keep an eye on in the days before release is the long-range (e.g. 10-day) weather forecast. I'd defer the release if the outlook is for frequent or prolonged wind, rain or stormy weather, or if a serious depression is about to move into your area from the Atlantic. Owls don't function well in that kind of weather and simply tend to stay put under whatever shelter they're lucky enough to find. An inexperienced owl could quickly starve. The BBC UK Weather pages are useful, giving a regional monthly outlook and detailed 5-day forecasts for local areas (put in your postcode). UKWeather.com also offers local and long-range weather — you can get 10-day and one-month forecasts for your postcode (if you can believe them!). Basically it's useful to have more than one source for your weather as the forecasters can get it pretty wrong sometimes.
I suspect that there's a toss-up between returning a chick to its natal area (where it was born) very soon after it can first fly -- when its parents are more likely to take it back but it has less chance of surviving on its own if they don't take it back -- and in July when the parents are perhaps less likely to take it back but it has a much better chance of finding food for itself and surviving generally. I haven't found any evidence either way on the internet -- probably because it's customary to release tawny owlets later rather than earlier.
If you have an owl that has damaged its flight feathers to the extent that it can't fly upwards easily you'll have to make alternative arrangements. You should not release an owl that is not fully capable of flying. This happened with one of my owls as a result of being allowed to play in a box. The problem here is that while damaged tail feathers don't matter so much and are replaced quite quickly, damaged or missing primaries may not be replaced until the second year. That means you might not be able to release the owl until its third spring! If you cannot keep the owl properly for this long you should hand it over to a rehabilitator. The legal situation here (based on my own enquiries) is that you can keep the owl without a licence provided that you intend to release it when it is capable of surviving in the wild. If in doubt or if you have any queries, refer to this DEFRA page on licensing "Other birds". There you will find contact details (address, telephone and email) for the Wildlife Licensing Unit at Bristol, which will help you with your enquiry.
14. Releasing the owl
Releasing an owl is very straightforward and can be done from a pet carrier. Take the owl to a wooded area. An open area in the woodland is best -- e.g. a clearing surounded by trees. Don't release in a field. Give it some time to "arrive" before you open the door of the carrier. Stand back and let it decide when to leave and where to fly to in its own time. You can let it fly from your hand, but don't whatever you do throw it into the air or rush it in any way. If there's a suitable low branch from which the owl can take in its surroundings there wouldn't be any harm in popping it on that.
Release should be done late afternoon or evening when the owl is fully awake. It may stay around for some time before flying away from a nearby perch and disappearing from view, so you need to set aside up to a couple of hours. Feed well beforehand.
Professional "rehabbers" often use a "hacking" cage for owl releases. This is a medium-sized portable cage that can be carried as panels on a vehicle and assembled in situ. Being in a hacking cage gives the owl time to take in its new surroundings before it's released. I used one with an owl of my own, keeping it in the cage for 48 hours before opening the door. This is where those who've used jesses to walk with the owl around the prospective release area will be at an advantage -- or the owl will be! -- as the young owl will already be familiar with the area.
Another possibility for those who can afford it is to radio-track the owl. This involves fastening a radio tag (a tiny battery-powered transmitter) on to one or two tail feathers and picking up the signals with a directional antenna. Using such gear you can guarantee to find the owl any time up to about six months after the release (provided that the owl survives and the tag stays on!). Unfortunately the gear is expensive and only really an option if you expect to do more releases at a later date. I got my equipment from Biotrack. You have to order early as there is quite a long lead time -- probably too long to make this a practical proposition for a first owl. (And a warning here: it can be difficult to fix a tag so that the owl doesn't pull it off double-quick! I'll have more to say on this elsewhere some time.)
15. Checking out afterwards
You're unlikely to see the owl again, but if you feel dedicated enough return to the area on several subsequent days after 6 pm with a defrosted mouse in a polythene bag just in case. Call the owl by name and listen for squeaks, sometimes almost inaudible. It's more likely to be seen/heard in the first few days than later. The owl is unlikely to have moved far (say max 500 yards), so walk around calling and listening. If it doesn't put in an appearance after half an hour to an hour it's an indication that it's finding food or is dead. If you do spot it and it doesn't come to you or appear distressed, it's probably because it is finding food successfully. Tawnies appear to be hard-wired for hunting: they know what to do when they hear a rustle in the leaves below, as studies of releases are demonstrating
Chances of survival at this stage seem to be a bit better than a new fledgling's (50%) -- see the Hawk Conservancy Trust site for what to expect after release. Here's the link I gave on page 2: Accipiter Research index. Both the Trust and the RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre are doing release programmes later this year with a total of 24 radio-tagged juveniles to see how they fare compared to wild youngsters. Quite a bit more at this anchor on my Tawny Owl links pages.
So, you may be disappointed not to find the little creature which you've spent so much time and dedication looking after for the previous couple of months, but the best way to think of it is that you've upped its chances of survival from near zero (if it was a flightless chick) to something better than 50%. In a good food year, and if it's a feisty bird, that could be much nearer 100%. And that can't be bad.
And next . . . ?
Basically, if you've found a Tawny Owl chick on the ground it's likely that you've also come across parents who are having problems with an unsafe nest site. That means you may well find another chick or chicks on the ground in the same place next year.
Chicks aged less than about 25 days aren't supposed to be out of the nest, let alone on the ground. Here I go on our own experience and against the often expressed advice that a flightless tawny chick on the ground is quite normal and should be left as it can climb trees and will be looked after by the parents. I believe that two separate stages in an owl chick's development are being confused here, and that the capabilities of fledged chicks (flight-capable youngsters aged 30 days plus) are being attributed to flightless nestlings aged less than 25 days. More on this in another place. But the upshot is that at the age they are often found on the ground -- usually about 15-20 days -- tawny chicks are almost helpless. Moreover, they're likely to be abandoned by the parents -- specifically the mother, who knows that something's gone wrong and doesn't waste effort on a hopeless case. The little thing is simply left for a passing fox or crow to finish off.
So, you may well have found a pair of parent owls who are losing chicks regularly. How can you help?
Find the nest
First, and obviously, check out the immediate area where you found the chick. Often they don't move very far after falling -- maybe just to the base of a nearby tree. The parents are likely to be using a nearby open nest -- an old crows' nest or similar. Have a look around and see if you can spot a twig nest, or group of nests. In an open area like a garden the chick may have walked further -- I know of one case in which a chick made its way across an open lawn before reaching the place where it was found. This check can be done any time: it doesn't have to be left until nesting time.
Put up a nestbox
The best option as it reduces the risk of flightless chicks falling to near zero. A nestbox should be put up near the nest site, near meaning within 10-50 yards. If the nest site is on someone else's property you will have to get permission. Some landowners are sympathetic and cooperative, others are not. You may have to convince them that a nestbox will not damage their tree, which may be part of a cash crop. Also, an owl nestbox is a long-term commitment -- they can't be left without inspections and maintenance. See my Nestbox pages for details on tawny boxes.
If a nestbox is not an option -- checking the nest in subsequent years (also see "A legal note" below)
If you can't provide the owls with a nestbox the only thing you can do is keep a lookout for more chicks on the ground next year. This means locating the nest and making frequent checks (once a day as soon after dawn as possible, and again in the evening if you have time) during the critical period when the chicks are starting to become active.
When to start checking. Tawnies don't lay at regular times -- our own tawny mother has laid at all times in the average UK breeding period. However, if we accept that the average laying time is about 20 March (the spring equinox), chicks are going to be entering the danger period about 1 May, or when they're about 12 days old. The danger period is the next couple of weeks, lasting until the chicks are about to fledge and "branch" at and after 28 days of age. More on why this period is so hazardous on my page Why Tawny Owl chicks fall from open nests.
Assuming she lays about 20 March, you can check any time after this whether the mother is on a nest -- take binos to the area at any time of the day, approach quietly and you may see her flying off. Leave (don't stay) and she'll return. If she gets used to you and you're quiet she won't leave, though this takes a few visits. Always leave the area if she flies off as she's unlikely to return if she can see you, even if you stay absolutely still. Another way to tell if there's a mother owl on the nest is to stop some way (70 yards or more) from where you think the nest is and listen for her kewicks. This needs to be done after 9 pm and may take some time as you wait for her to call to her mate. If you're lucky you'll hear the male coming in with food as this can be a noisy affair, with hoots as he approaches and loud greetings between the pair.
Back to when to start checking for those chicks. Let's suppose you've located the nesting site, that it's an open twig nest and that you have seen the mother on it. The time to shift checking into a higher gear is from the time you see little white heads bobbing around above the rim of the nest as this only starts to happen when nestlings are about 10-12 days old. Average UK time for this, as I said, is 1 May. At this time too the mother begins to leave the chicks on their own -- she usually spends her time in a nearby tree where you may spot her watching over the nest. So the time to start frequent checks is when the chicks are visible, playing and preening, and the mother is often off the nest. The period during which they are flightless but active and need frequent checking is the next two weeks. We've found that the most likely time for them to fall is about half way through this period, when they are 18-20 days old. After that (age 28 days) they are about to fledge and it is quite normal for them to leave the nest and perch or hop around on nearby branches, the stage known as "branching". If they are found on or near the ground at this stage they can be popped up on a branch and left as there is no need to interfere further.
What to do if a chick does fall. This is the difficult part to write as I know of no independent, reliable evidence that a mother will or will not continue to feed a flightless chick on the ground. Our own experience suggests that she will not, but it is limited and therefore inconclusive. In all our three cases (4 chicks total) the mother appears to have abandoned the chicks, in one case after leaving a rat on the ground that was not taken by the chick. On another occasion two chicks were in such an obviously bad state (they died later) that we had no option. My evidence from a sound recording made on the night these two chicks fell is that the mother stays around keening for several hours and then leaves. If just one chick of a pair (or more) falls she will stay with the remaining chick until that too falls.
So the question (which I can't really answer!) is, do you leave it on the ground to see what the mother does, or should it be picked up immediately. I happen to believe that it's not an option at this stage to put in on a branch as it's a flightless, helpless nestling and has no clue what to do, and certainly no ability to climb, as is often claimed. It may also be injured from the fall. Left on the ground it is likely to be dispatched quickly by a fox or other predator, and in some woods it will soon be discovered by ants, especially if there is blood from injuries. The two small chicks we picked up on a very cold morning were drowsy from hypothermia and probably only had a few hours to go even if they hadn't been eaten.
Not to beat about the bush, I believe the young nestling has to be rescued, even if it is not injured and even if the mother is still around minding any chicks remaining on the nest. If we find or hear of evidence to the contrary I shall be the first to put it up here! Obviously if the nest can be reached there's the option to put the chick back in (though have someone else watch out for the mother, who may attack), but this is rarely possible and the chick is likely to fall out again. Remember that this advice only applies to nestlings and not to fledging or about-to-fledge chicks, which can be helped to a place of safety but otherwise should definitely be left.
Links on releases
The Hawk Conservancy Trust in Andover, Hampshire, is running a Tawny Owl Project in which they are releasing radio-tagged youngsters in woods near the Trust. Research students then track the owls for up to six months (the life of the tag batteries). The project started in 2005, and on this page you will find links to interim reports in the Trust's Accipiter magazine. Unfortunately there is no report for 2008, but one gathers that the intention is to publish a full report when the research programme is concluded.
This next link is to a short account by Jim Perrin remembering an owl chick he found on a road in Snowdonia 20 years ago and released some months later. It may be short, but he seems to have got the rearing and release spot on.
A legal note
Tawny Owls are not Schedule 1 birds under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (but note: Barn Owls are), so technically you may approach a nest and, for example, cause a parent to fly away without committing an offence. There's little reason, however, why parent tawnies shouldn't be treated with as much respect as a Schedule 1 bird, so considerate observers will, I'm sure, exercise reasonable caution if they do what I've suggested above. The key point to note is that a disturbed parent may not return to the nest if you stay in the area. If you make a parent fly off the nest, leave altogether and return another day. It's little use standing still or attempting to conceal yourself: owls are very observant and are not deceived by such ploys!
NatureNet: Wild birds and the law Extensive details here on what is and is not permitted under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
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