Floofy Footballs in the City, Part 3: Owls Are Awesome

I agonized over the best course of action for the downed owl in the ravine stream. Within minutes of messaging me back, Chris arrived and carefully lifted the injured barred owl out of the stream, making a point to photograph it for educational and identification purposes. The bird offered no fight; in fact, it simply stood in the spot that Chris placed it, eyes closed. Then Chris placed it into a cardboard box and headed to the Ohio Wildlife Center.

If you’re able to photograph a barred owl this closely, it’s not good news for the owl. He offered no resistance to being handled nor to being photographed. Photo by Chris Brinkman.

The owl was identified as the adult male of the nesting pair. After being rehydrated and placed in the incubator, he passed away overnight. Cause of death was attributed to head trauma—almost certainly caused by a car. Barred owls in our ravine fly low, leading to increased likelihood of a vehicle strike.

Fortunately, the female was a seasoned parent; she continued feeding the two fledged owls throughout summer 2019. Still, with her mate deceased, Chris and I both worried that this female would not nest again in the ravine.

A young fledgling impressively grasps a branch, one-footed. Photo by Chris Brinkman.

Incredibly, the female barred owl found a new (albeit very shy) mate, and they nested in spring 2020! This time, the nest was about a good 50 feet off the road—about twice as high as the 2019 nest site.

In spring 2020, the owls nested in this grand sycamore along the road; it offered much better protection than 2019’s snag nest. Photo by Kelly Ball.

Most of us local owl aficionados were not even aware of the nest until the first of the three baby owls had already fledged.

Check out the talons on this newly-fledged barred owl. Photo by Kelly Ball.

As luck would have it, I was present when the other two owlets fledged! Imagine a gymnast dismounting from the balance beam, only it’s 70 feet off the ground and the gymnast has never dismounted before. Watching these barred owls’ first flights was something like that.

I managed to get a short video of the third owlet immediately after it fledged. These babies can MOVE once they land! They just raise up those wings and hoof it up the ridge to trees—and to safety. Video by Kelly Ball.

As with the previous year, I periodically return to the ravine to get a look at the fledged owls.

They’d been out of the nest for just a little over two weeks. Once fledged, young barred owls will stick together. Strength in numbers! Photo by Kelly Ball.

It’s been a little over three months since the 2020 barred owl babies took their first awkward flights. The first fledged owl was not seen again following the first evening. Without a body as evidence, we will never know what happened to it.

Of the two that remained, I received a text about one in early June. One of the neighbors had found a dead owl and reported it to Chris. He shared that news with me, as well as the photo he’d received of the owl.

Urban birds must confront and overcome obstacles both natural and humanmade. Photo source unknown.

I’m deeply grateful to know more about these beautiful, awesome owls. Although incredibly difficult for me emotionally, I’m even grateful to have borne witness to the inevitable instances of their mortality. Now my philosophy toward how and when to intervene is clearer. It pretty much boils down to this: When human emotions intersect with injured wildlife, strive for the most reasonable and humane response possible.

Engaging to this degree with a nest and its occupants is exciting—magical, really. Sharing what I’ve learned helps my neighbors understand the immediate wild world around them. Once thusly captivated, I cannot pull away; like any birder, I want to know how these fledged owls and their parents fare. But it’s a delicate dance to balance this excitement and appreciation with objectivity. As always, I’m left humbled by birds.

Have you listened to the podcast episode in which Chris Brinkman discusses his work photographing owls? In it he mentions this, one of his most widely-published photos. In 2016, a red-tailed hawk knocked this baby great-horned owl from its nest. The young owl sought refuge in a nearby magnolia tree. Chris only photographed this owl one time. Birds are magical! Photo by Chris Brinkman.

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