Sunday, April 4, 2010

Answers to questions in last group of comments:

Hi Everyone!

If you haven't been following events, I've been watching a live stream of a barn owl box, which includes sound and night vision. The female, named Molly, has been nurturing her 4 babies while her mate, McGee, hunts and brings back prey. There have been surprises, especially the prey he's been bringing back. Every study I know of shows that Barn owls eat 97% mice/voles and about 2-3% small birds or other small creatures like frogs. This couple is eating mice, small rabbits, and even a small possum. I'm commenting on the events in this nesting box. If you want to see what we're talking about, go to


Wow, a lot of events and a lot of questions. I'll try to answer them all as best I can.

I think McGee will continue to bring in live prey because he's not sure when the babies will be ready for it so he just goes ahead and does it. Molly will know when a baby is ready. I don't think any of the babies are even near ready, but they may still be learning just by observation. There isn't much that gets past an owl, even a baby owl. So making the link between the live animal and the kill and then the immediate presence of food is probably the most important lesson for them to learn about survival, other than protecting themselves, which they'll learn from watching mom, also.

I've seen mothers rush out of the nest like that, even dragging their babies by accident and causing them to fall. They run out to greet their mate sometimes, if they're extremely hungry they may race out to get food the male has before he comes in, so that she can eat it. Have you noticed that when the babies are active and hungry, even if she takes a morsel and intends to eat it (you can tell this by her yum-yum celebration sound, that's like a low chatter. That means she really, really loves the way the morsel tastes and really, really wants to eat it). Well, she'll take the morsel, chatter, then feel a baby rubbing the side of her beak and automatically give it up to the baby. So she may get so hungry that she all but attacks the prey in McGee's beak when he comes in at a certain time.

The "yum-yum" chatter is the fastest chatter she does, and she makes it almost exclusively when she has a morsel in her beak.

I wish there was a way to isolate these sounds and explain them... I never got Wesley's yum-yum sound on tape because he didn't do it nearly as often as Molly does.

Or she'll rush out when something unusual happens that she sees as a possible threat. I used to watch one nest of owls right above a coffee shop (If you read the book you know this story), and the mother dive bombed a delivery guy twice, after first making sure her fledged babies were watching. She made quite a show of it with the very loud scream and everything. The hilarious thing to me was that the delivery guy didn't even notice it, even though her talons almost raked his bald head! He was so caught up in his own little world.

A lot of people are unaware of barn owls even when the owls are screaming right at them, because a lot of barn owl sounds seem to us a lot like industrial sounds that we've trained our brains to tune out - the screech/hiss of brakes on a truck, a squeeky fan - people's brains say, "Oh another industrial sound" and we no longer are tuned in to the idea that it may be an animal that's hissing or screaming!

Anyway, the mother must have known by now that this delivery man was not a true threat, since he'd been delivering every morning for almost 2 months, so I think she was literally showing her kids how to do an attack on a potential threat.

They will attack those who seem to be a threat, especially when they have babies, and especially when something comes too close to the nest. It may or may not be that there's a real problem. It's a perceived threat.

The scream, however, was the generic scream that can mean:
- I'm off to hunt and boy I feel good and wild and strong
- get away from me, I'm really mad or really threatened
- I'm so hungry I really want that mouse so I'll scream instead of my usual begging sound

They do have territories but they don't usually fight w/ other barn owls. I've mostly seen avoidance rather than fighting. However, it's possible there was a strange barn owl coming by and she was letting it know that this area was occupied. It could have been anything, really.

A great horned owl is a serious problem. A great horned can swoop down on a barn owl and kill it in midair or while it's sitting on a perch. This owl box is a particularly good place for them because they are completely hidden, and the pole is hard for many predators to climb.

There seems to be a lot of prey that's sized well for Great Horned owls - the rabbits and possums, so I doubt a great horned will come right to the nest. Most animals will avoid a fight with a beaked and taloned opponent if they can get regular prey easily. If a predator came to the nest, though, she might fight it. First she would do a lot of threat gestures and screaming to try to bluff it into leaving her and the babies alone, but she would fight for her own life. I don't know if she would try to escape and call the babies a loss if she had the chance. Let's hope it never comes down to anything like that!!

Some barn owls are habitual screamers and some aren't - they do have individual personalities. We had a female at Caltech who lived in the office area, and when we cleaned her box out, she screamed continuously and so loudly that people on our floor would freak out if they heard it and think we were torturing some animal. We also once had to move the owls from one aviary to another, and they screamed the entire way (we carried them to the new aviary in cat carriers) which also generated rumors that we were doing something horrible.

The scream of a barn owl is so hair raising that it has no doubt been the source of a lot of old stories about haunted castles and barns, and the screaming banshee of the night, and maybe even of dark demons lurking in the shadows. If you don't know what it is, oh wow, your imagination will think of something truly horrible.

Of all the barn owls I've known, the females have always been much more aggressive and they're big screamers, whereas the male usually has a much more mellow personality, like a dear old dad kind of guy. It makes sense because she has to defend the nest, so she needs to be a little touchy and feisty. He has to have the patience to hunt all night with all his might, only to be mobbed when he gets back to the nest when the babies are older. Yet he just keeps on, as faithful as can be, with no complaint.

They're both faithful to each other unto death. They mate for life and take that very seriously. I've never seen a male or female stray from their mate. I've even heard of cases where one takes care of the other for years, even, when one becomes disabled and can't hunt.

I don't think she's leaving the nest when she goes out. I think she's staying on an outer perch if there is one, or a nearby branch. One night when she went out with a rabbit, I thought I heard her eating it and making her "yum-yum" chattering sound between bites.

I didn't see the fight about the rabbit, but there must have been something about it that she objected to. Was it the first time he brought a rabbit rather than a more normal prey item like a mouse?

It is amazing that these barn owls are eating small rabbits and possums, but they are particularly good at adapting to new environments, which is why they have not been as threatened as, say, a very specialized species like the spotted owl in the Northwest, which requires an old growth forest habitat in order to live.

In spite of this ability, they are endangered in some parts of the United States, and not in others.

Barn Owls have been able to adapt to and live near humans for a long time because of their adaptability, and we're seeing that in how they are taking their food from what's available, even though they'd prefer mice. Their bodies are very specialized nutritionally for mice, though, so I'm glad to see that they're getting some mice. I know that rabbit is lacking in a key nutrient for humans, and that if we eat only rabbit, we will become malnourished, whereas if we eat only mice we'll be fine (Farley Mowat lived on a diet of mice for over a year in his wolf study). Barn Owls do need to eat the mouse and the whole mouse when possible. I used to say, "The mouse, the whole mouse, and nothing but the mouse, so help me God." to Wesley. haha.

About their beaks, what you see on the babies is exactly how the beak is on the adult, only bigger of course. The babies are showing you the true form of an owl before the adult feathers fill in and make them look so poofy. Once they're adults, you only see the tiny tip of the beak, but if she yawned, you'd see that her beak goes almost all the way up to her ears, just like it does on the babies. And owls don't have a fat neck. They have a long, skinny, flexible neck with long, straight feathers on it that stick out and make them look like they have a short, fat neck.

All this becomes pretty interesting when you actually get to see these guys living their lives out right in front of you!

I love barn owls partly because they are so expressive and never do anything halfway. If she's going to screech, she's going to blow your ears off. If she's interested in something outside, she'll bolt outside. They're passionate and feisty and lovable, yet wild at heart. It's such a joy to watch them!


PS: Keep the questions coming on the comment section and I'll answer those tomorrow. This is a good system!

About the book - you can get it at any bookstore or on Amazon or Barnes and Noble websites. You can still get the hardcover if you order it from any Barnes and Noble. I called recently and bought a bunch from them and they'll ship it right to your house.

I'm going to try to set up something in the San Diego area where people can come and have their books signed. We're also working on an Audubon event in Los Angeles, and I'll be in Bellingham, WA pretty soon. I'll get the schedule together and post it. I'd love to meet any of you who can make it to a book signing or event!


gimpy said...

wow, what a great writeup, thank you for all of that!!!!! it's so fascinating to hear about the animals in 'real-time' as things happen.

They had gotten rabbit before the fight- I think the video of her swallowing a small rabbit WHOLE was from before the rejected rabbit.

I'm still trying to figure out what noise is what. Is the 'motorcycle that won't start' noise her 'yummy morsel' sound, or is that more of a bonding-with-the-babies sound?

Charlotte said...

Stacey, you can't know how much we appreciate your time and willingness to share this wonderful information with us. My first stop after the coffee pot has been the "owl box". The next is now your blog! I hope you save everything you write as I imagine your next book will write itself through this process!

Regarding the great horned owl and its relationship to the barn owl..(Please excuse the not-Molly-specific question.) Generally speaking, if there is enough food to hunt in a shared area would the great horned tend to leave the barn owl alone? My son and I recently built and placed a barn owl nest box in a friend's spacious back yard. The day we finished putting it up we heard and saw a magnificent great horned roosting within a short distance from our box. Our friends had been hearing the great horned for a few weeks. Do you think the two could coexist peacefully? If not, would the barn owl pair have that bad neighbor thing figured out before choosing to move in to the high rise?

gimpy said...

Yes! I've now put Stacey's blog up as one of the bookmarks I check over coffee, too! Thanks for the updated information, it's very, very nice to read so much more detail than we get in the owlbox chatroom.

I've been joking to my friends about the 'yummy morsel' sound. Lately when I get something exciting to eat or drink I mentally think "YUMMY MORSEL!!!" .

The Stanford screamers stories are hilarious. I'm sure they weren't to you at the time.

Katzenwoofers Pet Rescue said...

McGee's been bringing rabbits since I started watching 3 weeks ago, before the first egg hatched. Mostly small bunnies, but once in a while a large adolescent. Here she is eating a rabbit whole, before any eggs hatched: I don't think the species of the meal was a factor in the "regifting" behavior.

kasm said...

Thank you again for your insight. I'm so glad to learn about these awsome creatures,from you, as I watch them live. I was really in awe of Molly's "warrior Cry". I couldnt think of anything else to call it. She amazed me. Something curios I noticed was a "tap tap tap" noise that started upon her exit. It continued for a while. Im lost. Did you get to see the video? Im wondering if you heard it and have any thoughts on that sound. Thank you again. I look forward to your blog every day.

suzie2 said...

Thank you so much for all of your insights and information regarding what I (we) are all seeing in The Owl Box. Now I can watch with new eyes and ears.

Yes, gimpy is correct, that is what I saw too, regarding the rabbits.

I throughly enjoyed reading your blog here this afternoon. Thank you again!!

gimpy said...

couple of observations tonight:

-not surprisingly, humans are weird. Someone in the chatroom was getting irate about 'Owls don't bond!!!'. When challenged, he/she said 'that takes emotions! they don't have emotions!'

Kind of amazing that people still have strong opinions like this in this day and age, when a lot of scientists like yourself have dispelled this crazy myth.

-WOW. One of those babies swallowed a mouse whole, which seemed to take a long time (hard to tell with the IR camera's perspective, but the mouse looked like it was 3/4ths the size of the owlet). Molly watched carefully with her wing over the baby, almost propping him up. I thought of what you were saying today about the lessons she teaches them. There was some kind of interesting 'food fight' that happened right before that - one of the smaller ones had the mouse for a while, and she was watching that owlet very carefully and seemed to be keeping the others away.

-Stellargal/Owlcoholic (depending on which chatroom you're in)

Roni said...

Great blog, Stacey! I really appreciate it!

Charlotte said...

I need to apologize for my 4/5 5:06 posting, Stacey. I quoted Dr Richard Raid as having told me something relative to pair bonding that I remembered and posted SO incorrectly! I called him that day to verify what I remembered and, am SO embarassed to say, din't wait for his call before posting it. Uggh. I just got off the phone with him. Please forgive me. He never said the researchers observed and verified males keeping and HUNTING for two nests. He clarified that during the time that UF did some telemetry studies with their owls, one of the student assistants responsible for monitoring the owl's movements told him of one male who paid a visit once to another nest box while he was hunting and providing food for his own. (perhaps he was stopping to say hi to his SISTER for nature's sake!) I feel like I've given those loyal, monogomous, hard working males a bad rap with that post. Can posts be deleted? Darn, I'm sorry about that one.

Stacey O'Brien said...

Charlotte asked me to remove a comment of hers that included information that she thought had come from a professor, saying that scientists had observed barn owls being "unfaithful". It turned out to be false information and she wanted it taken down immediatly, so I did. Unfortunately, there's no way to take out just part of a comment, so I had to trash the whole thing. So I copied and pasted it so you can see the comment without the incorrect info in it:

Charlotte's corrected comment:
Charlotte said...
One of the characteristics of the barn owl that you shared with us today that I find heartwarming is how pairs bond with one another for life. You described how one will devotedly care and hunt for its partner if the other is injured. In your book you share that if one mate dies, the bond is so strong that the living mate might turn his head away from life and “stare fixedly in a deep depression until he dies”. How profound those emotions are. I am moved beyond words to realize that this depth of feeling is even possible in non human creatures. In fact, as you have helped teach us, emotions such as this are an integral part of “the way of the owl”.

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Thanks again, Stacey, for your involvement in the blog, for all your time in answering our many questions and for the love that pours through every word that you share about these magical and majestic creatures.supenca

April 5, 2010 7:53 PM