PULLMAN, Wash. – Nine pairs of big, yellow eyes stare up from a cardboard box. Inside sit nine baby screech owls. They’re about the size of a baseball and have called the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital home for about three weeks now.
The baby owls have already outgrown their cage, and technician Alexis Adams is moving them to a larger space. They do their best to frighten Adams, sharply clicking their beaks and aggressively squawking.
Veterinarians originally thought the babies were great horned owls, but something just didn’t add up. The owlets grew more feisty every day. That was the first clue that something was off.
Nickol Finch is the head of the school’s exotics and wildlife department. She noticed the owlets also seemed to be small, as juvenile great horned owls go.
“They’ve slowed down on growing a lot faster than a great horned owl would,” Finch said.
These baby owls were suffering an identity crisis.
Seeing nine great horned owlets together is pretty rare. Photos and videos of the little feather balls quickly disseminated around the web.
That’s when two owl experts wrote in to say those look a little more like Western screech owls. Screech owls, Finch said, are even more uncommon in the Palouse than great horned ones.
“I’ve never seen great horned owls this young, and I’ve never seen a screech owl even younger then a fledgling – they’ve always been to the point that they were flying on their own,” Finch said. “And then to suddenly get nine of them all at once is really, really unusual. Honestly, I would be surprised if it happens again in the next 20 years.”
This video was produced and posted by WSU before veterinarians there realized the birds they thought to be horned owls were actually screech owls.
The mix-up was compounded because baby great horned owls and baby screech owls look a lot alike, especially when they are this young.
At only a few days old, the owlets were brought in from two different nests. One nest was accidentally cut down from a tree; the other fell from a chimney in Lewiston, Idaho, as a home was remodeled.
Finch is keeping the owlets away from humans, and no one can talk when they are in the room. That’s because she doesn’t want the baby owls to imprint on people.
“Right now they do a lot of eating and a lot of pooping, just like a baby of any other species,” Finch said. “They are getting a lot feistier.”
The hospital will release the birds this summer until they can fly. Veterinarians will use a confined space for a “soft release” because there is not a mother screech owl that can take care of the young. They will keep feeding the owls for several weeks, after which they will release the owls but will continue to provide food in case the owls cannot find any.
“You always wonder: How are they gonna do? Do they actually come back for food? Have we taught them what they needed to know?” Finch said. “We just have to cross our fingers and hope that they have enough of that nature-versus-nurture to be able to make it on their own.”
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