HAVING OWLY for an all too brief two and a half months in 2003 made me want to take a set of pics that would show the astonishing development of a Tawny Owl chick from hatching until it attains full adult plumage. The whole process takes almost exactly 100 days, or 3 months and 1 week. Here you can see how Owly’s sister Sophie developed. The series starts at the end of her third week as that's when she fell from the nest. One day I'll find the time to put up more of the hundreds of pics I took of her. In the meantime look at the short summary in The First 100 Days. It includes some photos of other chicks to show development before I had her.
A word of explanation about how we come by these owlets. The parents were using a group of old crows’ nests to breed in, and this was the cause of their problems (they're now using a nestbox). Any time after it's about two weeks old a chick walks backwards to the edge of the nest when it wants to relieve itself. In a hollow in a tree this is a good idea as it helps to keep the central area clean, but on a nest it’s a very bad move indeed. A chick that backs right over the edge falls to the ground, which may be 25 or more feet below, and may well hit branches on the way down. At this age it is incapable of flight (and will remain so for another couple of weeks), and our experience has been that the mother makes a simple assessment and abandons it, sometimes after an attempt to feed it on the ground. There's an explanation of why Tawny Owls can't find traditional nesting sites in "No homes for tawnies", and the second part of this article explains in more detail why flightless tawny chicks are often found on the ground in spring. If you need some help on caring for one you've found, there's some guidance here: Looking after an orphaned tawny chick.
Sophie hit the ground on 21 May 2005. Pressure of work and unexpected family developments have meant that we've already missed one deadline for her release. When she does go out she'll do so with a radio tag on her tail so she can be found at any time and fed if she’s not finding enough for herself. A largish area of woodland and fields about a mile from her parents’ territory has been earmarked for the release once I'm sure it's unoccupied by other tawnies.
A closing comment. Sophie may look a pampered pet in the photo on the right, but the fact is that all three tawny chicks I've reared have been resolutely independent creatures with their own minds. An RSPCA study has shown that the tawny appears to be hard-wired for its hunting existence in the wild and that orphaned chicks brought up by humans are not at a disadvantage when released.* Other studies since have confirmed this.
* Bennett, J.A. & Routh, A.D. (2000). Post-release survival of hand-reared tawny owls Strix aluco. Animal Welfare, 9, 317-321. The text of this article is not available on the internet. The abstract can be read on the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare site (UFAW is the publisher of the journal). The abstract is 3/4 way down this long page -- search on "tawny" to locate it. The main conclusion is that "Hand-rearing did not appear to affect the birds' instinctive behaviour or post-release survival ... hand-reared tawny owls do not appear to be at a disadvantage when compared with wild juveniles...". A number of subsequent release studies have since made the same finding.
JUNE 2007: Sophie's release is on hold yet again as she has too few flight feathers to be safe. I've only just found out from Karla Kinstler's site that these big wing feathers can take an age to replace. Sophie broke them playing in a box some time ago. As she doing a big moult just now and the old feather stems are falling out there's hope that she'll be ready for next year!
August 07: Sophie's moult is now complete, leaving her with a nearly perfect set of flight feathers, so with luck we're on track for a release next year.
January 2008: She's well, fully feathered and so can be released this year. I need to order a new battery for her telemetry gear as the first one was bought two years ago. Release is going to be interesting and something of a challenge as she's now undoubtedly used to being a "kept" owl! She's friendly to me, but fortunately she's not keen on other people, clacking her beak and flying away — even from one or two people she sees quite frequently. This is a good thing, and I'm doing nothing to discourage it.
March 2008: Sophie's mother is back in the nestbox after a year's leave from babies. Follow events in the Tawny Owl Nesting Diary 2008.
August 2008: Release is scheduled for 10 August. I have a second youngster to release at the same time — this one, also a female, is four months old. As they're good friends they'll be going out together, with radio tags on their tails. I've been monitoring the wood and nearby fields where they'll be released for some time now, and although there is an owl pair with territory in fields and a wood to the north, the area where my two will be going appears to be free. Once they're settled in I'll start a report on their progress.
Mon 11 August: Owl release one day late. Story starts on next page.
A larger version of the photo used as a background on some website pages.
It shows a young Sophie in flight.
powered by owls
. . . to this!
How she got from this . . .