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Looking Out for Owls

It's International Owl Awareness Day and there's no better time to be aware of how we impact the wild owls around us! There are over 265 owl species in the world who are located on every continent except Antarctica. They live in habitats that vary dramatically, have different nesting needs and diets, and range from the very tiny to the very large. Many are nocturnal and most are elusive. As a result, there's often an owl living in closer proximity to us than we realize!

Despite the countless variations that exist among owls, there are some basic things we can do, and not do, to look out for these incredible birds of prey. So on that note, here are seven tips we created - one for each of the week leading up to August 4th - that can help us all be owl-friendly!

1. Don’t use Rodenticides.

No one wants to share their home with mice and rats, but if you do, you might also share your outside space with owls and other raptors who eat rodents! After all, prey availability may be the single most important factor for owls when choosing a spot to call home, even for a short time. A mouse that has ingested poison is an easy meal for an owl – as the poison takes hold the mouse will slow, seize, and can no longer run and hide from predators. To an owl, this looks like a great opportunity. Unfortunately, once ingested, the owl (and any other predator on small mammals) is subject to secondary poisoning. The most common rodenticides are anticoagulants (such as d-CON), but nerve poisons and kidney poisons are also on the market. These poisons are nasty and dangerous; even if the dose is not immediately lethal, poisoned animals may bleed to dead from just a small injury.

Watching any animal suffer the effects of poisoning is horrific, something never to be forgotten. There are many better ways to deal with rat and mouse problems, as poisons will never fully get rid of them and the dangers to wildlife, pets, and children outweigh any benefits. If rodent control in your home is needed, use old fashioned snap traps or humane traps in protected locations and never, ever use poison! Integrated pest management works to deter pests from your home in safe ways.

Owls themselves are actually extremely effective at rodent control. This is especially true in agricultural areas where Barn Owls have created impressive results feeding on mice. Barn Owls’ are happy to utilize nest boxes and are less territorial than many other owl species. This means you can have a lot of owls in an area of heavy rodent concentration. Many farmers have seen fantastic results and rely on owls for productive crop yields.

Photo © Small Forest Landowner News

2. Do create a brush pile.

Maybe you’ve trimmed a few trees, have a pile of grass clippings, or noticed some boards in the corner of your garage? Pile them up in a corner of your yard – kind of like building a fire. Let some grasses grow up. What do you have? The start of some great small mammal habitat! And where there are small mammals there are often – you guessed it – owls!

Many owls utilize a perch and pounce strategy when hunting. They love a low (think fence post or log with branches still attached) to moderately high perch (like a tree, snag, roof, or pole) from which they can silently listen and watch for voles and mice below. Locate your brush pile near a fence post, tree, or the like, which might entice them to take a closer look at your pile and its inhabitants. And think about edges. Forest edges are special spots for owls. It’s where the darker, cool forest meets the open and exposed meadow. Here is where they feel protected but can still keep a watchful eye out for a potential meal. If you have the ability to create an edge-like habitat, this is a great way to help your local owls feel right at home!

If your efforts are successful and you’re attracting owls, encourage them to nest by putting up a nest box. Dimensions and plans for various species can be found at Dedicating a corner of your yard for small mammal habitat – and expanding from there - is one of the easiest (and most enjoyable) things you do to help look out for owls! Also leave as many old trees as possible, for potential nesting trees.

Photo © Macaulay Library, Barred Owl

3. Don’t put out a birdbath for owls. Or at least read on for best practices if you do.

Owls stay hydrated from the food they consume and rarely drink water. During the heat of summer, however, they may look for a cooling bath. In fact, owls and water are no strangers to each other. On many occasions, we’ve watched young Snowy Owls swim across bodies of water – sometimes from an accidental landing during flight practice, sometimes as the easiest way to get from one point to another. If the conditions are especially cold, this can be dangerous, but they usually manage it well. Yep, owls can swim!

At all stages of life, an owl just wants to freshen its feathers from time to time. And while a bird bath may be great in theory, stagnant, warm water is a breeding ground for a host of bacteria which can be harmful, sometimes leading to sickness, disease, even death. Birds that frequent birdbaths can also be vectors for diseases such as Trichomoniasis and West Nile. If you do have a water source out for your local birds, make sure to clean it daily. A good chemical-free scrubbing, ensuring you are removing any slimy buildup daily, and keeping the water fresh and cool should do the trick!

Generally, birdbaths are not a big attractant for owls, but it does happen. If you do have one, just make sure it’s one fit for an owl!

ORI's Denver Holt talks about cavity nesting owls and snag conservation

4. Do leave those old trees standing!

Sometimes we feel like a broken record when it comes to snag conservation. We talk, preach, and plead – please leave these old, dead trees alone! Why? Because they are critically important to so many owls, as well as countless other species. For starters, snags provide critical nest sites. Those holes you see dotting the surface of a snag? Some are made by woodpeckers, other are formed from natural decay. Either way, it’s a potential home for an owl, like Northern Pygmy, Saw-whet, Boreal, Flammulated, Screech, and Barred, Elf, Hawk Owl. What about a dead tree with a broken off top? What could it be good for? It might be a much-needed nest for a family of Great Gray, Great Horned, Barred, or Northern Hawk owls.

As dead trees, snags don’t stay standing forever. In fact, by the time they’ve become good nest trees, they’re often pretty unstable. But here’s the good news: even after they’ve fallen they are an important part of habitat for forest dwelling owls. Downed trees are a special part of forest structure: they become ramps to safety for branching owls, perches for preening, roosting, and hunting, and create shelter for small mammals to flourish. Downed trees are a critically important part of forest health and rejuvenation and provide special functions for countless species.

So while we say it a lot, we’re saying it again – Save A Snag and Help an Owl!

Photo © Brooklin Hunt, Great Horned Owl picked up after being hit by a car

5. Do slow down!

We all have places to be and things to do, which leads us to drive fast and tunnel our vision. But did you know that car strikes claim the lives of thousands of owls each year? Roadway corridors are owl attractants, often mimicking a natural forest edge – the area where a grassy meadow meets dense trees. Sometimes roadways are even complete with fences from which to perch and hunt. Owls gravitate towards these areas year-round, but especially during the winter when deep snow can make hunting a challenge; road hunting can prove a more efficient use of energy.

As you are driving, be on the lookout for owls, especially from dusk till dawn when they are out hunting and often flying low. Slow way down at night and in low light conditions, and be aware that owls will often flush from the ground or low perch as your car drives by, crossing right in front of your path. If you do come across an injured owl, contact your local raptor rehab center – they can provide next best steps and, depending on the injuries, potentially treat and eventually release the owl. Unfortunately, many car strikes are fatal.

In addition to driving with caution, don’t thrown anything out your window – not even bits of food that will decompose. While the waste itself will not attract an owl, the little animals that come to feed on it will. This lures the owl into the roadway and puts it at greater risk to be hit. So give a hoot and don’t pollute and always look out for owls when driving!

Photo © Kellen Beck, Denver and Gnoma

6. Do be aware of how pets and owls interact.

We get a lot of questions about whether or not owls pose a danger to small pets. And while we’ve heard some stories, there is little risk of owls snatching up your dog or cat from your yard. Yes, it’s possible, but extremely rare. A large owl, such as the Great Horned Owl and Snowy Owl, may be able to carry a very small cat or dog, however, they specialize on smaller rodents when available. Gerbils, bunnies, guinea pigs, hamsters, beware! More commonly, and where many stories originate, owls and other raptors will “make a pass” at small pets, eyeing and possibly hitting them with sharp talons, but not actually carrying them away. They do the same to us. Without question, these defensive behaviors are intimidating, but they are really just intended to drive you, or your pets, away.

You should however, be aware that outdoor cats kill billions of birds and small mammals every year in the US. Cats pose direct competition to owls around your home and are a major threat to native wildlife, as well as spreading disease. Cats can also kill owls, especially smaller owls, nestlings, and fledglings, especially before they can fly. Likewise, dogs pose a very real threat to owls who are on the ground nesting, hunting, or recently fledged owls that are an easy target. Many dogs also love to hunt small mammals, which might make it harder for a local owl to find its next meal.

Make no mistake about it – we love our pets! For example, meet Gnoma, pictured here. Named after the Northern Pygmy Owl – Glaucidium gnoma – she is Denver Holt’s (ORI Founder) true-blue companion. As pet owners, we all just need to take extra precautions, especially during nesting season, to ensure that our domestic animals are not negatively impacting the wildlife around them.

7. Don't approach owls.

If you see one on the ground, first secure the area from loose pets or other threats, and observe the owl from a distance. Does the owl appear to be hurt? For example, is it bleeding, falling over, or did you see it get injured? If yes, contact a rehabilitation facility in your area right away – and if there isn’t one near you, you can contact one for advice over the phone. It is very important not to stress out the owl, especially if it is injured. If you are positive the bird needs veterinary help, cover it gently with a towel or sheet, and transfer it to a cardboard box (with holes) with newspaper or a towel inside, then close the box for darkness.

If the owl appears okay, try to determine if it is a young owl – nestling and fledgling owls usually have a more downy (fluffy) appearance than adults. You might also notice that the flight feathers (their tail and wings) are not fully grown. And, fun fact, when many species of owl leave the nest, they are not yet able to fly! For the first few weeks after leaving their nest, they are walking on the ground, climbing up trees and branches, and jumping from tree to tree (rather ungracefully). If you approach a young owl that is not yet flying, it will either make an attempt to blend into its surroundings, standing very still and thin, or try and look tough by spreading its wings out, hissing and clicking – this is because it thinks you are a predator. The only reason to approach an owl chick is if it is in imminent danger (such as from cars or pets) and move it to a nearby, safer location, such as in a tree out of harm’s way. The adult owls will continue to care for the little one wherever it is, and young owls are quite adept at finding safe places to hang out and hide and wait for food deliveries. Do not be concerned if you don’t see an adult owl nearby, or even after hours of waiting. It is best if you leave the area so that the adult owls don’t feel threatened by your presence. The parent may not bring prey to its chicks until after dark, or only a few times a day, and this is normal. Every once in a while, a chick will fall from the nest when it is much too young and be unable to walk or climb. In this case, you can place it back in the nest (if you can locate the nest) or get help from your local wildlife rehab center.

Another fun fact, owls can imprint on humans, meaning that if a young owl spends too much time being cared for by people, it will begin to identify with humans and have a much harder time surviving in the wild.

As a general rule, it is best to leave wildlife alone. We already do enough harm to them and their habitat, so adding to their stress is really not helpful.

In closing, Happy Owl Awareness Day! CLICK HERE to purchase a 2020 Owl Awareness t-shirt and help support our research, education, and conservation of owls!

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