Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Big Molly Scare

For those who've been following The Owl Box and the plight of Molly and McGee, the owls who nest in the owl box in San Marcos, CA., yesterday was a day of worry. It was a day I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams - a day when the welfare of a barn owl was so important to people that it became the top news story in San DIego.

Having spent most of my adult life with a very obscure obsession - my intense love for barn owls - I thought I was a member of a small group of odd people who knew the great secret. The great secret was that barn owls are individual, fascinating, unpredictable to an extent, expressive, and that they can steal your heart away. This little club of misfits included some scientists, animal rehabbers and rescuers, and some birdwatchers and naturalists.

The rest of the world didn't even seem to see barn owls or care that they existed. This has changed.

The first inkling I had that barn owls were entering the public consciousness was when I went to speak at Book Passages in Marin County, San Francisco. I discovered that the city had a program called "Hungry Owl" (www.hungryowl.org) that provided owl boxes to people who had rodent problems with the promise that those people would not put out poison. Barn owls were now partnering with suburbanites to keep rodents under control, just as they've done for ages with farmers. Wow! But that was just one city.

Having a camera in an owlbox isn't new. My mentor at Caltech spent years studying a wild pair, just like Molly and McGee, and that was many years ago. Scientists have been doing these camera-and-microphone-in-owlbox studies for as long as there have been cameras. And yes, with wild owls, not captive or "chosen" owls.

And people have been putting owlboxes on the internet for years.

But for some reason, this owlbox attracted so many people that it has accumulated over 8 million hits. Not unique hits, but still those are huge numbers.

Everything was going along just fine in the box until yesterday, and all these owl watchers had become lulled into a sense that all would continue to go well. But then Molly seemed to have disappeared into the rain and did not come back to her babies yesterday.

I had seen hints that she was going to be an unusual mother. Owls are individuals, so you can't predict their behavior perfectly. All a person can do is say that it's more likely or less likely for her to do this or that. Molly was proving to be on the "that" end of the spectrum. She was restless. Most mother barn owls stay with their babies almost full time - this has been my experience in observing wild owl nests. They may go out to hunt, but I've seen many where the mother never leaves the babies for any reason until the babies finally leave the mother. Owlivia seems to be more of a normal barn owl mother in that way. But Molly couldn't wait to get back out there, even though it seemed that McGee was providing enough food.

I thought she was premature in leaving them alone in the box at all. And evidence that she was going off and bathing meant she might be taking inordinate risks for a mother with a nest full of babies. If she was bathing on the ground, she was making herself more vulnerable to predators than she ought to. She never got all that wet - just the tips of her outer feathers were soggy, but it was worrisome to me. Of course, she could have found a low tree that was being hit by sprinklers but it's not all that likely.

So I was already thinking she should stay with the babies and guard them! That's the barn owl mother's job. That's why she's 1/3 bigger than the male and is more likely to have the darker tummy and face feathers, looking like she's been rolled in dust. She can stay camoflauged and is big enough to defend the babies. Also, the female's personality is often much feistier than the male's, which makes sense if he needs to patiently hunt all night and she needs to be on guard at the nest.

But they do have their own minds and are highly intelligent, which means they will do what they want to do, not what we expect them to do.

I must say that there is literature that says that mother barn owls leave the nest when the babies are still in it, but if this does happen it's usually when the babies are older - when the can all stand up and rip their food into small pieces or easily handle whatever is brought in.

The littlest baby, Wesley, swallowed a mouse the night before Molly went AWOL, and Molly watched him very intently. Some have posited that this was the trigger that caused her to start leaving the nest. Maybe it was. i don't know. We need to be careful about putting cause and effect together when we really have no idea.

So...even with the signs in place that she was unusual, I was not prepared for the email I received yesterday evening from a friend: "Molly hasn't been seen since midnight last night! Everyone is in a panic and the owlbox chatroom is going crazy."

I thought she was probably dead. I hoped that McGee was ok. It occurred to me that they might have shared a meal of poisoned rodent and both died. What would happen to the babies? Should I call my friend at Skyhunters? What was Carlos going to do?

People saw me logged in and peppered me with questions. I first said maybe Molly was dead, but was told that I was upsetting the people and "don't say that". I said she MIGHT be dead. MIGHT BE! I mean, that was obvious, wasn't it? If it wasn't obvious, why was everyone in a tizzy?

But I also said maybe she got wet in the rain and took cover in a palm tree. Palm trees are great refuges from the rain. "But wouldn't she have come back to the babies by now?", people asked. Well...perhaps. Some barn owls will fly around during the day and some won't.

Was she injured on the ground?

I joined the vigil with everyone else. CBS interviewed Carlos and there were media people at his house. The Union Tribune reported on Molly's sudden disappearance.

Then, at around 8 or 8:15, the babies stood up and started their extreme begging and there was chaotic excitement in the nest box. The babies had sensed, probably heard, a parent! And then one of the parents landed on the box. Thank God they weren't abandoned! Who was it? It was McGee. He dippped in and fed them. Well thank God he is feeding them. He flew away and within seconds in came another owl with more food. Was it McGee again or Molly? Carlos was taking pictures from inside his house and he declared it to be Molly!

On the chat room people were crying and yelling "Yay" and "Thank God" - all in text form of course. One woman broke into crying so hard that her husband ran into the room asking what was wrong. Another yelled and woke up her sleeping husband. I was very happy, but hoping that it was really Molly and not McGee coming back, that we had seen.

Then time ticked by and it seemed that McGee was the one coming each time, since the owl or owls did not go into the box, but delivered the food at the door to the babies. What happened to Molly going into the box with her babies?

Little baby Wesley, who can't even stand up yet to hold his food down w/ his talons so he could rip it into bite sized pieces, got a mouse and tried and tried to position it for swallowing. But he just couldn't. He was too little. He could not manipulate the food And he was so, so hungry, making urgent baby begging sounds. It just killed me when he abandoned the mouse, still hungry and another baby finally ate it. Darn it Molly! You couldn't wait until your youngest was more ready? What was the big hurry?

Maybe she'll come back in and help Wesley eat. If Wesley is lucky, they'll deliver prey small enough for him to eat whole. But they might not! They'll hunt and get whatever they can get.

If she doesn't come back, I remain concerned about the littlest owlet. Maybe after the others have ripped something up, he can then pull some pieces off, but he's awfully weak and small and may not be able to do this. Molly had been doing it for him and feeding him.

So now we wait to see if she'll come in and help him, or if she really thinks they're all just fine without her.

All of this leads me to think that she's a new mother. This, and her behavior when she laid the first egg. She stared at the foreign object, walked around it, stared at it some more. She acted like it was the first time she had seen such a thing.

I'll be back after I see what Molly is doing....

Ok, she's not roosting w/ the babies. Although Wesley is no longer begging, he is continuing to worry the gopher in the back of the nest, and is not developed enough to either rip it apart or swallow it. It's too early for the mom to be out of the nest but they are individuals, not robots. They're not all the best parents, not all the most devoted. There is a range of behavior - this mother is too early, but the babies will PROBABLY survive anyway. The "best" barn owl mothers stay w/ the babies until the babies leave her. I'm a little worried about little Wesley (the youngest baby), but if the others rip the food up during the day, he will most likely get in some bites, or be able to swallow a partial rodent.

The mother does NOT leave the nest to "teach the babies independence". Her leaving the nest has no effect on their sense of independence! Babies from a nest where the mother stays until the end are well taught and just as independent as those who have a mother that leaves the nest when the babies are about 4 weeks old. I prefer that the mother stay with the babies. It's safer for the babies and covers contingencies like a baby not being able to rip up the food.

But these are not robots. They make their own decisions and this mother obviously wanted to spend time away from the babies even a week ago.

It will be interesting to watch.

(This will be translated into Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese later in the day for the foreign language versions of this site)


Monica K. said...

Stacey, thank you so much for your continued observations and participation in the Owl Box. We all benefit from your expert knowledge and ability to observe and comment as a scientist, not just an obsessed fan. Yes, it was obvious that it was possible something serious had happened to Molly, and we needed to acknowledge that. This is the real world, not Disneyland. (Of course, that doesn't stop me from hoping desperately that Wesley makes it!)

daveandcallie said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I too am concerned about Wesley's ability to feed himself. Though I'm not a worrier, I hope I'm just worrying.

Ter-o-fla said...

I, too, thank you profusely for taking the time and energy to write about all this from your professional standpoint. I also try not to worry, though that IS my middle name. -sigh- This has been a very instructional experience for many of us.

Eva =uD said...

Stacey, acabo de leer tu post, solo ahora que vi lo que pasó.
Eso también me preocupa, porque si algo ocurre a molly no se lo que sería de los bebés owllets.
gracias por el punto de vista profesional.
Te admiro, mucho, mucho, mucho.
Espero que todo estés bién ahora.
Besos.. :|

Kathlene said...

I was in overflow watching the conversation. I sure admire you writing to the world you thoughts of what you know and what you are surprised to learn and find out.
see ya in Julian!

wess_liana said...

HI Stacey... I didn't want to ask in the chat room because I didn't want to get yelled at (hahahaha) but without Molly there to referee, will the hungry owlets start to pick at little Wesley? I sure hope not, but I needed to ask. I'm the type of person who needs to know the worst case scenario - I don't like surprises. thanks, Stacey! I hope to be able to see you in Bellingham (will you be making any other Seattle area appearances before your move to CO?) ((((hugs))) Liana

Stacey O'Brien said...

To Wess_Liana: I don't know what will happen to Wesley. I like to think that he'll be able to grab scaps when the other babies tear up food, that he'll have the temerity to grab the scraps out of their beaks, even. I doubt they would intentionally help him because usually baby owls are competing with each other. I hope that some prey is brought in that's small enough for him to swallow.

If you want the worst case scenario - the worst case, though not likely, is him getting weaker and weaker until he's near death. If he got to that point, the babies might start picking on him. However, when I've seen a baby owl die in the nest, what I've mostly seen is that the other babies eventually trample the body of the baby flat. That's really gross and horrible, but I have seen it.

HOWEVER! Wesley is almost there. He's not a newly hatched owlet. I think it's most likely that he will be able to get enough food to at least develop more, and the if he can get to where he can stand and rip food - get the leverage he needs to hold the food down w/ his talons and pull up w/ his beak, then he'll be on his way. He's a little old to have the worst case, even though Molly is a little early in leaving the nest.

And we still don't know that Molly won't occasionally hang out and rip up food for him. We've only got one night's worth of observation under our belts. So let's see.

Also, I suspect that if we all saw that Wesley wasn't going to make it, a raptor/wildlife specialist would be happy to take him out (they can do this easily w/o overly disturbing the nest) and rehab him into a healthy, hearty owl who willl someday raise his own crop of babies in the wild. That is the best case for the worst case!

As I keep saying - there is a federal program where there are wildlife centers to take care of theses kinds of things, to try to offset all the damage that humans do to wild animals w/ our cars, our poisons, our pets, our pollution, our ravaging of their habitat for our cities, our live electrical wires that electrocute so, so many raptors.. And that federal program is full of well trained people who will go to great lengths to save one barn owl.

It's not interfering w/ nature! It's making up for all the interference we've already put into place!

So.. that's my answer. Wesley is lucky so many people are watching because I'm sure that if he starts to fail, he'll be taken to a wildlife rehab center.

Stacey O'Brien said...
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Lynn Blackwell said...

I very much enjoy your insights and I love your book. Considering how sensitive your Wesley was to his surroundings, I'm wondering if Molly has come to feel uncomfortable with the box. She has discovered and attacked the camera at least twice that I know of, and a porch suddenly appears, with some possible noises associated with its appearance. Could discomfort with the box possibly cause her to leave her babies there and only come back to feed them?

wess_liana said...
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Teresa said...

Thanks so much for staying with the chat room last night, even during the times you must have felt under attack! It was obvious that so much of the reaction was due to fear of what had happened to Molly, and not really wanting to know what the worst case scenario may be. I sat on my sofa and just yelled at some of the people for you!
I agree with you that Molly seems to be a young and independent mother. I'm really hoping she gets past this independent streak and goes back to mothering her youngest, at least for a few more days.
You had mentioned in a previous blog that this is the time she and McGee would begin mating again. I assume she will not have a second brood until this one leaves the box. Is it possible she will return to the same nestbox when she lays her second clutch of eggs, or will she look for another place to raise her young?

wess_liana said...

Thanks for your answer Stacey! I appreciate your honesty and am sure that all will be well with the owlets and that they will be taken care of if something does happen :-) Also, I was just on the chat and someone posted the following pix of Max "feeding" Wesley today (Wes might just be stealing it) it's good to see him getting something to eat!

silkenpaw said...

Thank you so much for presenting the objective, scientific view instead of the disneyfied version we are usually treated to at The Owl Box. I, too, hope that all goes well with this owl family, but that's certainly not guaranteed.

silkenpaw said...
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Janet said...
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Stacey O'Brien said...

Barn Owls usually return again and again to the same nesting box or nest to raise their babies. She might even lay eggs while this group is still working on fledging!

The problem with this group fledging properly, though, is that they will need more than bushy branches to hop back and forth to. They need solid branches close to the box to hop to as they exercise their wing muscles. From what I've been told by people who've been there, the tree near the box is not adequate for the job.

Therefore, it looks like someone will need to put up a strong perching area near to the box, but far enough for the babies to hop back and forth (3 feet?). I think Carlos knows this and I'm betting that he will put up such a "branch" for the babies to fledge to. They do not fledge to the ground! The ground is a nono for baby/young owls! They are strictly hop back and forth to branches learners. ;-)

I think Carlos knows this and is probably planning to put in such a perch.


Cybee said...

Thanks Stacey for your analysis. Interesting. So glad Molly came back but sorry she rushed things by leaving early. Glad there is now a perch for the fledgling...I continue to enjoy your input here as well as when you are in the Molly owlbox.
Suey Pit