Friday, April 2, 2010

Molly the Barn Owl - comments on events of late March

I was recently introduced to a wild mama raising her babies in a nesting box in San Marcos. The live stream watching her (WITH SOUND! So you can hear all the sweet and expressive chirps, begging sounds, and love sounds between Molly and mate McGee), is 24 hours a day. Wow!

The website is:

I've gone on the chat room a few times and we've been talking about some of her unusual behaviors. For example, there have been many, many studies about Barn Owls' diets, with the overwhelming consensus being that they eat about 97% mice/voles with another 2-3% being small birds or other opportunistically captured small animals. But THIS hunter, McGee, is bringing home RABBITS! Consistently, I'm told! I'm floored. This just shows that each owl is an individual and that no matter how much of an expert a person is, they will never know everything. That's what I love about science, and about ethology in particular!

Each animal within a species is an individual. Wesley wanted to be a water bird. Never mind that he wasn't waterproof and that in the wild he could have died from not being able to fly when wet, or from hypothermia. In captivity, he was able to realize his dream of living like a heron because of the technology available to him (me lifting his waterlogged self out of the tub, drying him off, and using the blow dryer).

And McGee is an individual. He has apparently NOT read the literature and has decided to hunt small rabbits, which he brings home to his family. This makes me wonder if there is a subgroup in the San Diego area of barn owls that rely heavily on rabbits because of their abundance - a group that has adapted to eating rabbits. It may not just be McGee, in other words.

This would be very interesting to look in to. Pellets from all over the United States are dissected by schoolchildren to show them how scientists find out about the diet of wild animals (other than just through observation). As I understand it, they invariably find a mouse skeleton in the pellet, certainly not a rabbit skeleton!

Yet here we have it - hard evidence that a barn owl is hunting rabbits for his family. They seem to be young rabbits - not full grown - but still, this is a big change from the normal behavior of Barn Owls. I would love to see a study of local barn owl pellets to see if the whole local community in that area are eating rabbits. I assume that McGee learned to hunt from his parents. This is how all barn owls learn to hunt. They go with their parents and watch them hunt, plus they learn what to see as food by what their father brings to them in the nest.

If the local community of owls is eating rabbits, then McGee would have learned that from his father/parents.

One thing that is so wonderful about this site and chatroom is that we have many thousands of people doing exactly what ethologists DO, which is carefully and consistently watching the wild behavior of an animal and then asking the myriad of questions that come up. And the questions will be endless, each branching almost infinitely into the next. The answers start to come with experience and with a lot of patient watching. But to someone who is truly fascinated, it doesn't seem like you need patience, does it? The time just flies by and you become more and more interested and curious as you have more and more questions about what you're seeing.

That's just what it's like to be an ethologist, and it's a blast to have thousands of people being ethologists and naturalists and truly being able to experience it! WOW!

An ethologist is someone who studies the behavior of wild animals through observation of them in the wild, or in some cases, doing immersion studies like i did w/ Wesley. Konrad Lorenz is considered the "father of ethology". He did a famous immersion study with Graylag Geese, allowing them to imprint on him. He stayed with them and studied them and was their "parent" as far as they were concerned. He even had to teach them to fly.

I did a similar study with Wesley, having gotten him before his eyes opened. When they did open, he imprinted on me and I was his "mother" and later his "mate", so that he behaved toward me the way an owl mate would behave toward his female. In fact, Wesley routinely greeted me in the bonding behavior that we're seeing with McGee. When McGee goes into the nest he often jumps on her back and does what can look like a mating behavior, but which is really a greeting.

Many animals use aspects of their courtship behaviors as a greeting, including humans. We hug and kiss to greet each other and it's not at all sexual. Same goes for McGee rebonding w/ Molly whenever he comes in with food for her.

If you're watching the stream, feel free to ask questions on the comment section of my blog, and I'll discuss them in the next blog. I want to be able to slow down from the chat room and really have questions and discussions here on this blog, for those who are interested. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for all of us to do an informal field study of a nesting pair of barn owls! How exciting!

I used to spend many, many nights out somewhere under a nest and watching the owls. It's so fun to be doing this WITH you guys who are so into it! How amazing it is for me to discover so many kindred spirits who are so interested in these barn owls, just like I have been all of my adult life!

I'm going to go over to the stream now and watch the owls!

Stacey O'Brien

PS People asked me about an incident involving Molly taking a rabbit outside, then McGee bringing it back in. I watched the video long enough to see that Molly took it out and to hear that she was eating on it. If you watch carefully, you'll see that sometimes Molly will hold a piece of food in her mouth up and away from the babies while making a stacatto sound that's very distinctive and goes up in pitch and volume, sort of like: du du du Du Du DU DU DU DU DU DU DU DU Du Du Du du du du...

That sound specifically means, "This morsel tastes SOOO good! I love this stuff! I want to swallow it but first I'm celebrating how wonderful it tastes!"

Even though she sometimes still feeds the morsel to an insistent baby after making that sound, she sometimes does swallow the morsel. Wesley did this when he had a particularly delicious piece in his mouth (like a head, heart, liver, or rack o' ribs).

So, with the rabbit, Molly took it outside and you can hear her making that sound intermittently, which to me means she was reaching into the neck hole and pulling out pieces then celebrating them, then swallowing them. She probably needed to get away from the babies in order to eat in peace.

Later, when McGee "regifted" it to her, I think he found it outside, partially hollowed out, and brought it back in. That's just my opinion but it is based on experience.


Katzenwoofers Pet Rescue said...

Stacey, McGee brought the rabbit one night. Molly appeared to refuse it - she would not take it from him, and ignored it when he dropped it on the floor of the box. She pecked at it a little the next morning but did not feed any of it to the owlets, and she kept moving it around as though she didn't want it near her. The next night, it was still in the box when McGee brought in a small rodent. Molly took the rodent from McGee, then he grabbed the leftover bunny from the floor of the box and shoved it at Molly (the "regifting" incident). Again, she refused it, quite adamantly. Within minutes of McGee's departure from the box, Molly left on a fly-about and took the rabbit remains with her, coming back without it.

I thought at the time - still do, actually - that there may have been something "off" with the rabbit.

RiverCitySTL said...

Stacey, first thank you for sharing your life experience with Wesley with us. I have, like many, become fascinated by Molly and McGee.

My question is, did Wesley usually eat the mice whole, or did he pick at it and savor the taste?

I apologize if this is covered in your book, I ordered it, but it has not yet arrived. I can't wait to read it!


gimpy said...

it's SO great to see your name on the chat stream, and thank you so much for explaining some of the noises and behavior!

ARJ said...

just want to confirm Katz (1st commenter) has the sequence right; Molly barely touched that day-old rabbit for some reason and clearly seemed to discard it when McGee tried to 'regift' it to her. Somethin' wasn't right with that carcass; she has devoured most delivered rabbits.

Judy said...


Thrilled that you too are involved now with Molly and McGee! I've read your book and shared with others.

I wanted to know what your thoughts were on the last egg having yet to hatch, is it unusual for a owl to have all the eggs in the clutch hatch and live?


Ann said...

Stacey, I had a wild pair of Barn Owls raising their chicks in my palm tree out in the back yard ( I live on a canyon). I actually got a picture of the male bringing a cotton tail into the tree! It was right after I finished your book so I was totally shocked. I asked the people at the web site. They said it's not unheard of. Like you said, there is an abundance of rabbits in San Diego.I'm in La Mesa, by Lake Murray. I really miss them but the tree has seen better days after 2yrs of use! Glad to see you posting! I hope you're doing ok.

Ann said...

Oh, have you seen the web cam at Starr Ranch in Orange County? It's an Audubon sanctuary. There is 5 owlets just about ready to fledge. Also a bunch of links to you tube when they brought them down to band them. Check it out if you haven't already. I just love those "Barnys"!

Joy and Doug said...

I think there may be a bit of confusion about the rabbit incident. Someone can correct me if I am wrong, but I believe there were two separate situations, involving the same rabbit. I think there was a bit of a confrontation about the rabbit the night McGee brought it - which I think may be what Stacy watched and is commenting on. What Katzenwoofers is talking about is the second incident - which occured the next night - with the same rabbit. Now, I'm not sure the first incident was recorded - if it wasn't, then I am mistaken. But Katzenwoofer has the second incident correct - the rabbit was definately in the box when McGee gave it back to her, because he brought her a rodent first, then picked up the rabbit it put it in front of her face.

Thanks for lending your expertise Stacey - it's great to read!

kasm said...

Hi Stacey,
Im so excited you Joined us with Molly and McGee. I have a question on the great mouse escape. With Mollys excellent hearing, shouldnt she have heard the mouses heartbeat and have known it was still alive? I would think a live rodent near those owlets would be a threat to them. Im not sure why Molly let it live unless shes used to live, but paralyzed rodents. So glad to have the chance to ask you. Thanks.
ps. Ill be one of those New Englanders helping to put your book on the NY Best Sellers. I cant wait to read it.

gimpy said...

Supposedly McGee brought a small opossum today (last night?). Wow. he really must be good, they're pretty big critters.

Jacqueline said...

Hello Stacey O'Brien,
Thank you for your great book, and for sharing your knowledge about Barn Owls on the Molly chat. Along with all the video - I have been facinated with the audio - hearing the various calls from Molly, McGee and the owlets. I'm hoping that someone will put together a site - or add to the Molly blog site ( - with video clips of various calls - and then some ideas as to what the call seems to mean and when it is used. It is hard to express calls in language - "sounds like a dolphin". Much better to have real examples. Meanwhile, I'd love to hear your thoughts about Owl calls. Do these owls sound similar to your Wesley? Some of the clips I've found from the Mollyblog resources page sound a bit similar - but in fact surprisingly different than what I've been hearing from Molly & Co.

Katzenwoofers Pet Rescue said...

Very interesting interaction just now. Earlier this evening McGee brought a decent-sized bunny. It was still alive and Molly killed it. She fed the front half to the owlets, and tucked the back half into her "pantry". He came with several mice (one of which Max ate whole in just seconds) and a couple of gophers.

This last trip in he brought a small rodent, gave it to Molly, then reached over into the pantry, picked up the back half of the rabbit, and tried to give that to Molly, too. He kept pushing it in her face, she wouldn't drop the rodent to take it, and there was a rather loud, extended conversation about it. He finally ended up laying it down near her head, then left.

Molly was in the same place and position as the last "regifting" incident, once again she had a small rodent in her beak, and again after trying repeatedly to give the rabbit half to Molly, McGee laid it next to her head in the same place he laid the bunny last time.

The only difference between this incident and the last is that the bunny was fresh from tonight instead of left in the box from last night.

Fran said...

It's beautiful to see how well Molly's caring for her babies. Thanks for sharing this with us Sracey.

Belinda Rachman, Esq. said...

Molly fans are meeting at the Elephant Bar at 105 South Las Posas Road in San Marcos, CA 92078, this Monday for lunch. If you came with a bunch of your books you would be the rock star and everyone would buy a book. You really should come!!!!

Jeanne said...

Hi Stacey,
I wanted to ask a question about Molly the Owl? What is that big open part on her face -- it looks like a wound and seems to be getting larger. Is it a cut or is it just the way her face looks?

Maggie said...

Hi Stacey, I recently joined the Yahoo Group and I am just getting caught up reading some random posts on your blog about the M&M situation. Do you have a citation for your statement that the male barn owl takes the offspring out to watch him hunt so they can learn? Would love to read it as my impression is that they are pretty much instinctual in their hunting. They do learn prey image imprinting from what is brought to them, but never been aware or read anything stating parents teach them to hunt. This is really important to know when it comes to rehab groups, like the one I volunteer for, releasing or hacking out young owls. Thanks.d

Mark Browning said...

Hi Stacey,

I just happen to be reading your lovely book on Wesley for the first time. Not one but two friends recently gifted me with copies so I figured that was a sign.

I have worked with barn owls in captivity and the wild (raised my own sweet barn owl as a mascot for the Pittsburgh Zoo) where I was working. I also conducted the first satellite tracking of barn owl seasonal movements -- they really go.

I am now in California (sacramento area) studying the suppressive effects of barn owls on pocket gophers in vineyards.

I just wanted to introduce myself--and would love to confer with you on barn owls. (the most surprising thing in your book wasn't necessarily the attraction to water--which I experienced with my own barn owl and others-- but the absolute submersion thing!!!

Mark Browning