Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Watching baby barn owls

This is possibly the best time to watch the personality of the baby barn owls blossom. If you're watching one of the boxes, and I still think the audio and video on the Molly owl box is by far the best for watching - hey you don't have to chat. What I do when I want to watch is I maximize the video feed screen so it fills my entire screen. Then I sit back and ENJOY! I have the sound on so I can hear the new twitters and little comments the owls make, as well as the not-so-little sounds. lol.

They are very active during the day, now, because they have so much work to do on their feathers. The feathers are growing in so fast - these adult feathers that grow in through a keratin shaft.

I've explained this on the chat and in my book, but in case you missed it, the way these feathers grow in is amazing. First, a keratin shaft begins to grow up out of the skin. Keratin is what's in our hair and fingernails. Inside is a living organ, the pinfeather, which has nerves and blood vessels and which is creating the feather. It's one of the more miraculous processes in nature.

As the pinfeather grows to the length that the feather will be, it starts to finish the job of making the feather, and the blood and nerves start to recede, leaving in their place a perfect barn owl feather (in this case) at the tip. Once the feather is perfected, and the blood and nerves are receding slowly, the part that's done can be released by pulling off the keratin sheath. The way you know it's done is that it becomes white and waxy. So the barn owl pulls the white, waxy part at the tip of each feather off, and out springs a perfect end of a feather. But he can't go too far down, because further down is the dark part- and that's the blood filled, nerve filled part that's still making a feather.

If you're grooming an owl and you are pinching the waxy white part, it sort of breaks up under your fingers and you either brush it away or gently pull it off. But if you pinch too far down, on the dark part, it's extremely painful and the owl will scream! You do NOT want to pinch or push on a pinfeather that's living, because they're soo soo sensitive.

One has to be very careful in how one picks up a baby owl full of pinfeathers, too! If one were to just put ones hands around him and pick him up, it would be like he'd been skewered by a thousand red hot icepicks. So, when they're that young, they must be picked up from the feet, very gently and slowly.

The barn owls we've been watching on the Molly box, and soon on the Owlivia box, are very busy pulling the ends of their pinfeathers off and arranging the new flight feathers, grooming themselves. They look like maybe they're itchy and worrying over bugs, but in my experience it's rare to find an owl with bugs on him. Only if they have a very compromised immune system do you see any kind of mites or lice on them.

So they're working hard on their feathers.

If you look at the flight feathers under a microscope you can see that the edges have tiny little barbs and hooks that literally zip together! So when an owl does a long groom through his beak - he takes a long feather and runs it through his mouth from base to tip - he's literally zipping the side together so it'll be more effective for flying!

These guys cannot fly at all. Even if they beat their wings, they can't fly. It's a combination of still being too heavy, and the fact that the wings have to be in a certain position in order to catch the air and produce flight. The owls have to learn this through practice, practice, practice. And they fall quite easily.

Watching them in the box during the day, you see their personalities forming. Often you can see them getting playful and pouncing on any little thing in the box. They'll focus on something small like a pellet, then pounce on it and worry it w/ their feet and beak, then pounce again. They're playing! They scratch at the stuff on the floor just in general playfulness. They can be easily compared to kittens at this age. You know how kittens will suddenly get playful and focus on the silliest, tiniest thing as the object of their play. It's more about feeling playful than it is about the object.

It's just fun to watch their facial expressions at this age, too. They are waking up to the world around them. They're becoming curious and playful and fascinated with everything. It's a most endearing age for an owlet.

So don't forget to just enjoy the owls for who they are, and not let human behavior surrounding the owls ruin that for you. This is still an amazing experience that few will ever have in their lives, and you'll continue to learn a lot about owl behavior, just by watching.

I'm amazed at how much everyone has learned just through watching. Many people can even distinguish the owls based on their individual behavior, which is really quite an accomplishment!



Lynn Blackwell said...

Thank you, Stacey, for giving us so much insight into what is going on with these babies right now. Some folks are talking about "fledging any day" but they are obviously not ready to "fledge" or "branch" yet. Seems like far too much fluffy down and pinfeathers to me. It is fascinating to watch their personalities, and their interaction. In the last day or two I saw Max (I think) with his/her wing around Wesley (I think), touching beaks, like Max was checking up on Wes or just expressing affection. Do babies do that with each other or am I just reading into it what I want to see?

wess_liana said...

I just LOVE their little downy mohawks! LOL

Stacey O'Brien said...

Me too! hee hee! Those feather cuts are comical!

Lynn, I don't know if they're expressing affection. They are affectionate, but they can be pretty nasty to each other, too. Maybe they are expressing affection. I've seen them allopreen a couple of times -groom each other.

Ter-o-fla said...

oh, yes, this is a marvelous thing to be able to witness now!

Thanks for all the information! I feel as though I am learning a lot, and I like that.

Too bad I will be away for several days, most probably without internet. -sigh-

I hope others will have taken "notes" so that I can read up on what happens when!

Susan said...

Stacey, your comparison of the owlets to kittens is perfect! I've found myself several times thinking that they remind me of cats, especially with some of the looks they get in their beautiful eyes. One of the most surprising and delightful things I've learned during this viewing experience is how they slept flopped about when they were smaller, very cat-like. I would never have imagined they did that, assuming they slept like many birds, with heads, wings and feet tucked in.

I also love the mohawks...the horseshoe-shaped ring of down Max (or Pattison?) recently had going on top of his head really amused me! :)

Susan from MI