Sunday, April 18, 2010

Is Molly trying to teach the babies "independence" by staying away?

These pics were taken w/ the night camera and take careful scrutiny to see what I'm telling you about, I think.

1) Here is a picture of Wesley at the impossibly cute stage. These owlets are fast approaching that age, when the adult feathers are well developed underneath the baby fuzz and they look hopelessly cute!

2) In the second, Molly is relaxing on the left, with her right leg pulled up and her talons made into a loose fist. On the right side we see Max, I think, relaxing on his knees, with his left leg lifted ever so slightly and his talons made into a loose fist. He is either imitating mom or he is just starting to show the beginnings of adult behavior. I think it's pretty cute to see them side by side like that!

3) In the third picture, I had to take a bunch of screen shots to catch this because Max was trying very hard to stand on one leg and sleep like an adult. He kept losing his balance and having to put the foot back down, then he'd try again. Finally he was standing on one leg w/ his curled taloned foot up in the tummy fluff. Success!

Because of the camera angle you can't see their faces but you can still see a lot.

I've noticed a lot of questions along the line of the above: "Is Molly staying away from the nest to get the babies used to being on their own?"

No, she's not. They're way too young to be absorbing such a lesson, and mother barn owls aren't trying to teach this to their babies. The babies are, in truth, completely helpless and dependent upon her for protection and upon McGee for food. It's more likely that she sits outside the box because it's more comfortable and not as hot and crowded. If she doesn't have food to give them, it's no fun to be constantly hassled for food either.

In the same way, McGee is not going to pass up prey to try to manipulate Molly into doing "her share" of the hunting. No, they do not pass up perfectly good prey, with babies screaming their begging sound in the nest, just to manipulate their mate! This is not how barn owls think. They are all earnestness and sincerity in what they do, including hunting to provide for the babies. They cannot afford the kind of shenanigans that people might be willing to play.

When we talk about anthropomorphism, the real issue is this kind of projection of our own ways of thinking upon the animal. It's no longer so much an issue of projecting emotion upon them, because we now know that they have profound emotion (we even have live brain scan information, non-invasive, from the PET scan, to show the emotions at work in the animal). The danger, now, though, is this other kind of anthropomorphism where we project our own motives and manipulations onto the animals.

Since many barn owl mothers do not leave the nest, I conclude that Molly is leaving the nest for other reasons such as her own discomfort or restlessness or inexperience. And again, we do not know if she's hunting until we SEE her hunting.

There was some confusion tonight about the vocalizations of the babies. From now on, the babies will probably keep up an almost constant begging sound that the parents can hear from quite a distance. One nestwatcher said it sounds like people are scuba diving. Another thought an owl had a respiratory disease and was wheezing. Another thought a baby was trying to hiss a warning, over and over again.

This constant hiss/screech begging sound is due to hunger, and is to keep reinforcing the urgency of the hunt on the parents. As amazing as their hearing is, they can hear every nuance.

But tonight we also heard some new sounds from the babies. One was a bit of a chatter, almost the deDEEP deDEEP deDEEP sound that I associate with nesting, but not quite. Instead, it's like an exclamatory chatter that goes up in pitch and back down like an expression of excitement, which is what it is. It's a happy commentary on whatever is happening at the time, an is an exclamation of contentment and joy. Sure enough, though, when I explained it, people thought I was talking about the incessant begging sound. No, not at all. I was talking about a new sound that's just starting to occasionally pop up among the owlets, which is an adult sound really. The babies, they are a changin'.

Other changes are that the two oldest owlets, Max and Pattison, are starting to stand up. Wow what a difference that makes! They are nearly as tall as their mom, all of a sudden. Notice how filthy their knees are? They have rubbed off the feathers that used to be on those "knees" and have instead formed permanent callouses that they'll have for life there.

I also noticed that all of them scoot backwards on their "knees" as far as they can go before they poop. That keeps things along the edge of the box so that they don't have to sit in it, hopefully. The shredded pellets also help absorb the stuff. But still, the knees are very dirty.

The babies who are sitting on their "knees" are starting to curl up one foot into a fist as if they are practicing for the day when they'll be standing on one leg, with the other up and the talons folded into a fist. I got a pic of Molly standing on one foot sleeping, w/ an owlet sitting next to her holding his foot in the same manner as hers, only he's not standing. I also noticed that Max tried to stand on one leg to sleep but got jostled and couldn't keep his balance. He hasn't figured out how to cross his "knees" in back, creating a little platform upon which to sit.

I also noticed that now that Max is standing, little Wesley huddles under Max's wing just like he did w/ his mom. Max doesn't seem to mind. The owlets reassure themselves and each other with physical closeness when mom is out of the nest. At this age, my Wesley would not allow me to leave him alone under any circumstances, so having siblings really helps.

If you look closely at the babies now, you can see how the facial disks are shaping up. This is a good time to learn a bit about how the facial disks are put together. Notice how there are two distinct separate disks, with stiff bristled coming in to define the inside of each disk, with the nose coming down in between the two. The nose will eventually be covered with delightful, tiny brown feathers that kind of curl, and the facial disks will sometimes be expanded so as to hide the nose and the little brown feathers, and sometimes the owl will fold the facial disks so you can really see that nose w/ the brown feathers. The distinct separation of these disks allows the owl to hear in stereo.

When an adult owl is relaxed, the facial disks are relaxed and you see what looks like a brown stripe down the face, but really it's just the nose feathers in between the disks. When he's not relaxed, his facial disks are expanded, covering the brown nose feathers.

Barn owls can manipulate the tiny facial muscles to move individual feathers and groups of feathers to better focus sound and to make a myriad of facial expressions. They are possibly the most facially expressive of all birds because of this.

If you look closely, you will also see tons of pin feathers coming out of the tips of the wing and tail. They're amazing! The dark part is alive, with nerves and blood, capable of serious pain if pinched, surrounded by a keratin sheath. As the feather develops, the alive part of the pinfeather begins to retreat so that all that's left is the dead keratin sheath (our hair is made of keratin) with the newly developed feather inside. The owl pinches this white waxy substance off and the tip of a new feaher is revealed.

Meanwhile, the live part of the feather is still growing from the base. Those pinfeathers hurt the baby if you pinch or poke them, so they're pretty sensitive at this time. It's great fun to gently (GENTLY!) pinch the white part and reveal the magical new feather coming out the tip. All this is going on under the white baby down, so they still look like babies. And they're still very awkward, even falling on their faces every once in awhile.

But, they are going to come into that stage, which only lasts for a few days, where they'll look so cute it will seem impossible that any living being could be so cute! Max is almost there - he just needs his facial disks to get more distinct and filled in. When that happens, take as many screenshots as you possibly can, for there are few things on this earth as cute as a baby barn owl at this upcoming stage!

Sooo.. those were my thoughts today as I watched the owl box.

The need for more and more food will continue, since the babies are bigger and are actively growing, needing the equivalent of up to 6 mice/day in a perfect world, although they can live on less. Pray for the safety of the parents as they hunt, and for prosperity in the hunt, and the safety of the owlets in the nest box. I hope everything goes very smoothly as they grow.

Molly and McGee may start serious mating pretty soon in preparation for the next clutch.

Barn owls do not mate year round! There is a distinct mating season here, from March or so until September or so, depending on the owls and circumstances. Wesley first went into nesting mode in March, when he was 3 years old.

Remember to take your own screen shots! If you have a Mac, you hit the Mac control (labelled "command"), shift, 4
You get a little fraction thingy on the screen. hold down the mouse and move the fraction thingy ( a scientific term) to the to top edge of the window and drag the thing down diagnolly until you've selected the area you want in your picture. THEN you let go of the mouse and the picture is taken. It gets put on your desktop w/ the word "screenshot" and some numbers after it.

Enjoy making your own observations, and remember, this pair has their own personalities and another pair might do things very differently, like Owlivia and Owliver. The differences are distinct enough to cause a person to draw different conclusions in some cases. That's why scientists watch a LOT of barn owl nests, not just one.

Have a great day!


Susan said...

Stacey - thank you so much for addressing anthropomorhphism & the chat room. As a former Zoo docent it's the one item that I tried to instill in folks watching animals in the zoo. It's a complicated concept - because of our human instinct to put 'our' feelings on everything (including our pets!)

Love to read your blog. Your work is inspiring.

Eva =uD said...

Max está muuuuuy grande, y muy hermoso tanbién.
La verdad es que yo no compreendí bien a este post... porque mi inglés es horrible, como ya he dicho.
El antropolofismo me parece bastante interesante.
Me gusta mucho leír su blog, sigue escreviendo =D

Janet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joy and Doug said...

Janet - there is a tree underneath the owl box. The outside camera is zoomed in close so you just see the tips of the branches. Carlos made a comment about installing the box in that place on purpose so the babies would have a place to fledge.

Stacey - thanks for another great blog!

CatGirl said...

Stacey...I finally forced myself to read the end of your book. I enjoyed every touching moment. Thank you so much for sharing your life with Wesley.

Charlotte said...

Stacey, this entry of yours actually got me choked up as I first read it. The observations you make of the sweetest little details in the growth of our favorite fuzzy owlets invite us all to look way beneath the big and bold in that fabulous nest box.. I am overcome with the visual wonder that is available to each of us when we peek in, but your entries on this blog are the thing that really educate and inform us.. What a blessing it is to have you on board for this incredible ride!

Anonymous said...

很用心的blog,推推哦 ........................................

Joy and Doug said...

Just to follow up - here is a picture of the box from a distance and the tree that is outside the box. I think it's a bit closer than it looks in the picture because it's the tree that we can see the tips of the branches.

pam said...

Stacey, you have a way with words and should be a writer (oh that's right, you are :)

I just discovered your blog, thanks to those in the chat room. You are very generous to share your knowledge and report on the "goings on" in the owl box. Just wanted to say thank you! Pam

cape cod bette said...

thank you so much for this information. I wonder if there are barn owls on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and if so, I could install an owl box on our properties there.

Jessica said...

Thank you for writing about Molly and her owlets in such a fascinating and understandable way! I have always loved barn owls, even moreso after I read your wonderful Wesley (which I've read several times!) I'm glad to see you're blogging about these barn owls as well!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information about the facial disks. I had been wondering about the brown vertical line on Molly's face, because I'd never seen one on a barn owl before. I was looking up photos of barn owls to see if they had it, and only one of the pictures I found showed a vertical brown line. I guess she is really relaxed in the nest box.

The photo of your Wesley is so cute that he almost doesn't look real.

One of the great horned owl chicks I'm watching bravely flapped his way up about a foot on the branch the female was perched on. He stayed for a couple of minutes and then came down to the safety of the nest. I think it was one of his first attempts to perch outside the nest, because he didn't seem very comfortable with it. He also displayed his enormous foot and talons. The second one, which I assume is the younger one, mostly sits in the nest behind his sibling.