Like most baby birds, owls of this age are wrinkly, rounded and partially bald; what’s particularly striking is the difference in appearance between baby and adult owls’ head shapes. Youngsters like this Great Horned Owl haven’t grown in their facial disk feathers, which means you can see the birds’ underlying bone structure.
This little dinosaur doesn’t just need to grow its adult feathers, but also has some rapid height and weight gains ahead. Great Horned Owl hatchlings shoot from the size of a softball to full growth in just two months, which means keeping this baby well fed is a time-consuming and critical task.
During the youngster’s first week at Audubon, staff members had to feed it every two hours during the day, all without the bird imprinting on them or becoming habituated to humans. Care center operations manager Lacy Campbell suited up for a recent feeding by draping a camouflage-print sheet over herself – it had a hole cut at eye level – and placing a Great Horned Owl puppet on her hand. She fed the baby using tweezers held in the puppet’s mouth, and then returned it to a quiet incubator away from human activity.
The young owl has now progressed to feeding itself, so we’ve moved it to a mew behind the care center where it can see – but not physically interact with – an adult Great Horned Owl that is recovering from an injury. In the absence of the baby’s parents, the puppet and this adult bird serve as examples meant to show the young bird what it means to be a Great Horned Owl. If all goes well, we will eventually move the owl to a flight cage where it can hunt and fly with other members of its species in preparation for release back into the wild.
The complex and uncertain nature of this process highlights why it’s best to keep baby birds in the wild with their parents if at all possible, though this particular owl did need to come to the care center – we couldn’t locate its parents. While Audubon staff and volunteers do their best to raise the baby birds in our care, the birds’ parents are the true experts at how to guide them into adulthood.
Help bird families this nesting season by taking a look at our guide to what to do if you find a baby bird. The most important thing to remember is that just because a baby bird is found on the ground doesn’t generally mean it’s in trouble. Fledglings are supposed to spend time on the ground, and even if a nestling has fallen out of its nest prematurely, it’s best to place it in or near its nest rather than remove it from the wild.