Friday, April 16, 2010

Bonding and Mating - Are they the same? + more comments about barn owl bathing

Hi everyone!

There have been a lot of questions about whether or not Molly and McGee are still "bonding", since the babies are getting so big and we are not seeing Molly and McGee bonding anymore when he brings food in.

For one thing, it's very crowded in there with the babies getting so big, and for another, the babies are becoming more and more capable of mobbing dad themselves, so he almost enters the box at his own risk, with everyone ganging up on him at once trying to grab the food out of his mouth. It's just going to get more and more rowdy until it'll be downright riotous in the nest whenever he brings food.

When the babies start hopping back and forth to a perch outside the nest (which I hope will be there by the time they go out or they will not learn to fly but will just fall to the ground, helpless). Then the babies will spend most of the night hanging around on the top of the box, or on perches near the nest, but will still gang up on dad when he arrives with food. At that point, he may even resort to dropping the food onto the gang of mobbers and flying away.

Being mobbed by your babies is hardly conducive to giving a proper greeting to your lifetime mate. However, we are also seeing that Molly is going out for extremely long periods of time. I am almost 100% sure (with live animals and personalities we can almost never say we are 100% sure of anything)...that they are bonding while she's out of the nest.

People have asked me about penetration and other details, wondering why they would mate while they still have babies, speculating that they are mating well after the babies are growing to ensure that there's a healthy clutch. Well, let's straighten out how all this works with barn owls.

The most important thing to remember is that they have no external parts. Nope! Not like geese, not like ducks - thank God. Remember, Wesley used to both mate and bond w/ my arm, and most people who have raised a male bird of prey gets mated with.( You don't have a choice, really. Try fighting off a very determined bird of prey all day every day and you'll start to get the picture. There are programs, in fact, that take advantage of this behavior but we'll talk more about that later).

So, where are their "parts"? They're up inside the owl, nestled in with the rest of his internal organs, near the sternum. In fact, I used to "sex" birds for zoos and private bird breeders by inserting a tiny optical tube through the ribs of an anesthesized bird and peering in to see if they had ovaries or testes in there. The ovary looked smooth and the testes looked wrinkly w/ millions of little tubes all jammed together, making sperm.

With everything way deep inside, the owls mate by pressing their cloaca together. The male releases a tiny drop of sperm and it travels down a little tube to the surface of the cloaca. When they press together, the drop is transferred onto the female, and the little sperms swim up a tube to her ovaries.

It's amazing that they manage to mate at all with all the feathers and lack of parts.

But, much like humans do, owls use aspects of their mating ritual to greet each other. Humans use hugging and kissing as a nonsexual greeting, not just as a precursor to mating. Owls mimic the mating behavior to greet each other - only mates do this.

The bonding that we've seen inside the nest is not to insure that the clutch is complete. It's way too late for that. But they will mate to produce the next set of eggs at some point along the way. It's highly likely that they'll have another clutch immediately following this one, possibly with a little bit of overlap. In S. California, they may even produce 3 sets of babies in one nesting season. Remember, it's only April and nesting season can last through September.

In the world of Barn owls, there is no other social group. They do not flock, herd, gather, school, or live in prides. The mated pair is the limit of their social connections, other than the babies during the time when they're raising them. But after the babies are on their own, the mated pair is still together, bonding, preening, snuggling and cuddling, making sweet little sounds only for each other which are barely even audible to anyone else.

They're completely devoted to each other for life.

Young owls do make mistakes, which is one reason so few live through their first year. I mention this because I think Molly might be spending too much time away from the babies. It is true, however, that we are not able to observe how close she is to the nest when she's out. She may be nearby.

But there's an interesting comparison between Molly and Owlivia, who is in the same little area called San Marcos. Yes! There is another barn owl box to compare to Molly and McGee, which is the box containing Owlivia and Owliver! They have 5 babies. Owlivia does not leave the nest but stays with her babies. THIS is what I'm used to seeing.

It may be that I've accidentally skewed my own observations by inadvertently watching mostly the nests of very experienced barn owls. Since Molly is a new mother (I'm pretty sure she is), she may not be settled in to how to do things. OR she may be out hunting because there isn't quite enough food being delivered by McGee, or she may be restless.

Back to the bonding vs. mating question, I think they'll bond every day for the rest of their lives as a greeting - Wesley certainly did with me, but he only rarely "produced" anything, so he clearly was not mating. During nesting season, though, he tried to lure me to "nests" and did "produce". I don't think it's possible to know the difference through observation, except to know that they can't possibly be mating every single time they greet each other throughout the year.

This confusion between bonding and mating has no doubt led to some false conclusions by naturalists, bird watchers, and biologists in the past. But it's well known, now, that there's a difference.

Here's an interesting fact - biologists now use this behavior by their imprinted, unreleasable birds (parrots do this also) to help breeding programs for endangered birds. They wear a hat with a little plastic rim around the top that catches the output of the amorous male as he mates with his human. His "output" is then collected and send to breeding programs that artificially inseminate the females. Voila' another generation of an endangered bird, ready to be eventually released into the wild. Isn't biology fun?


About Molly and her flyabouts:
She sometimes comes back wet-ish. I say wet-ish because she is not at all waterlogged. The majority of her feathers are dry underneath, with mainly the tips of her feathers being wet. This way she can still fly. Her leg feathers are pretty soaked though. I wonder if she's standing in dewy foliage or going into the sprinklers somewhere or actually wading into a body of water.

Wesley used to enjoy being sprinkled while I took a shower, which gave him the satisfaction of getting a bit of a bath, without becoming so waterlogged he couldn't fly.

When he took a full bath, though, he would not be able to fly or even lift his wings up fully. He weighed probably more than twice his body weight when his feathers were completely soaked to the skin.

Two items were found online - The first is a sequence of photos of a barn owl taking a serious bird bath - immersing himself until waterlogged. The second is a video of a barn owl who not only takes a bath in the sprinklers, he anticipates that it's almost time for the sprinklers to start and stands on the lawn waiting for them to turn on.

Owls can tell time within some parameters - this one was off by a little, but he still got his bath! Note that both owls must have felt very secure that they would not be attacked, because they threw caution to the wind Most owls are very alert and cautious even when sleeping but these guys really knew they were safe. Either that or they were young owls being very, very stupid.But I think these owls have assessed their territory well enough to know the patterns and to know that there probably isn't a predator near. Finally, notice that both are taking a bath in broad daylight. Barn owls are mostly nocturnal but they are known to go out during the day sometimes.



Barn owl bathing:

Owl in sprinklers video (Great Horned?):

The barn owl in the sprinklers acts just like Wesley did when he would hang upside down off the shower rod - same wild positions. This owl almost turns a summersault at one point near the end, he's so intent upon putting his wings up and face down. His feathers are fluffed to the absolute maximum, just like Wesley's during a shower. When Wesley started doing this in 1986 or so, maybe late 1985, it had never been reported. Now the internet is full of owls bathing!

(Note: only my text is copyrighted to me, not the internet links.)


Bonnie said...

Stacey, this is fascinating!!! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your knowledge with us. It's amazing how many people have become mesmerized by these beautiful creatures—and I am one of them!!!

Janet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlotte said...

This is GREAT information. You covered two of the things I got on Wes' blog to ask about this morning. When I saw this morning's stats for both bonding and snacks, I wondered if there might be some action going on outside the box. Thanks for addressing both of these and so much more!

Another topic you addressed briefly (concerning the very rare incidence that a male might ever stray or provide for two nests) was most likely in response to a post I made in early april in which I TOTALLY misquoted UF professor Richard Raid. I didn't wait for Dr. Raid to call me back to post what I remembered from our conversation. After I talked to Dr. Raid and realized my post was totally inaccurate, I tried to post an apology-retraction and asked to have my first one removed, if possible. I then read that you don't go back to check on older posts.. Auggh. You must want to pull your hair out some days with bloggers like me, Stacey. Hope you and the rest of the wes-blog public can forgive that one. It's been a learning experience for sure.

Stacey O'Brien said...

It's funny because this was one of the rare instances when I took someone else's word for behavior that I had thought was unthinkable to a barn owl. I have always tried to ONLY talk about what I've seen myself and actually KNOW rather than what I'm TOLD. That's why I haven't said that Molly is hunting outside the box. I haven't seen that so I don't know what she's doing - she may be nearby and getting rodents from McGee.

But I violated my own principle by quoting someone else - because it was supposedly from an expert. Well, mea culpa! I have learned something through this. Stick with what I KNOW and let the chips fall where they may! Thanks Charlotte for setting the record straight!

Eva =uD said...

Esto es tan sorprendente!
Me fascina que pueden vivir en la misma ciudad y tener resultados tan distintos en la caza.
No se.
Solo ahora me enteré de Owlivia y Owliver. Pero es evidente que tieném mas experiencia que Molly y McGee.
Bebés buhos son TAN hermosos! =]
Voy a ver los videos ahora.

Eva =uD said...

Esto es tan sorprendente!
Me fascina que pueden vivir en la misma ciudad y tener resultados tan distintos en la caza.
No se.
Solo ahora me enteré de Owlivia y Owliver. Pero es evidente que tieném mas experiencia que Molly y McGee.
Bebés buhos son TAN hermosos! =]
Voy a ver los videos ahora.

Charlotte said...

It's MY mea culpa on that one, Stacey, not yours. I wish I felt better now that you're aware of it. Do you know if MY post(April 5 comment on your April 4 post)can be taken down? I feel sick that my misquote of Dr. Raid is still up, flapping in the wind. New Wesley fans and Molly followers alike hop on Wes' blog every day. Though it's your input that most are looking for, some read from end to end. In that way, my faux pas continues to live on... Aughh. I'm so sorry.

Joy and Doug said...

Thank you for your blog Stacey - so informative! I just finished your book today and now I am givinng it to my Mom - it was riveting. Thank you for sharing your story. People who have been watching both Owliva and Molly's boxes have noted that Molly's owlets are more active than Owlivia's. Do you think that could be why Molly leaves the box more at night? I agree with you - I think that Molly is probably in a palm tree nearby and getting hand offs from McGee. I watch a lot during the day and she doesn't get a lot of sleep. I think she would look a lot more ragged if she were hunting all night. Thanks again Stacey! joym13 on ustream

Stacey O'Brien said...

Hi Charlotte!

Not to worry, I expunged the part of your original comment that contained that information, so the error is not written anywhere, anymore.

It's amazing how much false information does get propagated in much the same way as this almost was, by people who are really trying to tell the truth. One of the most common ways this happens is when people do a book on, say, "owls", and they get their info from other books on 'owls', who got their info from a book on 'owls' and they are all doing their "research" by reading other books on the subject. So if one book was wrong about something along the way, it gets propagated over and over again and, then, when people read a bunch of books on owls and they all say the same thing, they think it must be true! This is why scientists, although they do read the literature, must rely upon their own observations and be very careful about quoting other scientists!

Thank you for being such a stickler and insisting that every instance of this mistake be expunged. I appreciate your thoroughness and persistence! I assure you that the mistaken info is gone forever. Thank you again for your integrity! Some people would just shrug their shoulders and say, "What's the big deal?"

I'm impressed!


PS: Caltech's motto is "The truth shall set you free." and I have to agree! Even if it's "just" about barn owls. ;-)

Charlotte said...

I can't find words to thank you, Stacey. After sending yesterday's "plea to expunge" I had waves of guilt.. What nerve for me to ask for you to use your time fix MY foul up... Another person may have simply banned me from the site! You're NOT that person. The gift that you provide us every time you sit down to write is amazing. I continue to be humbled by your selflessness. That you actually put a positive spin on your last response to me has left me in a puddle of tears. Thank you. THANK you.

Anonymous said...

I met you in the O & O box chat room. You hung out and shared parts of your story but mostly you just tried to be a friendy to me and SoCal. I felt so honored to have chatted with you and am so grateful. You're a blessing to all who meet you. I hope to chat again with you, read your book and learn more about owls here and everywhere I can. God bless you.

StM Computers said...

Love your insights Stacey.

I've noticed that Owlivia is leaving the box these days too.

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