Bad Mama?

Juliette Crump Uncategorized

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The owlets photographed on the trampoline were quite famous this spring at the end of Wylie Street in Missoula. Children gathered below their snag tree to watch the baby fluff balls grow and stretch. The female watched over them all the time even though the male was not around. There are lots of stories and pictures of them.

Unfortunately, the latest news is that one of the owlets was found in an emaciated state. They had already fledged and flown around and one day, Geoff Carlson and Bill Bevis found one owlet standing on the ground, letting dogs approach, for two hours. Greg Stahl, neighbor to the dead snag and the owls, called Brooke Tanner, of Wild Skies Raptor Center, who tried to rescue it, but it died on July 20th. Brooke said she had not seen a bird that skinny in thirty years.

In June, my daughter, next door to me, had watched the female parent feeding both owlets on the roof outside her daughters’ bedroom window. Every night she heard their bark-like “reeeek” cries for food. But soon after that the female disappeared. Early in June I had seen both the mother and one of the fledglings fly into a tree branch on my driveway and kill a black critter there (crow or squirrel). The fledgling flew away with parts of it in its beak. So, maybe the fledgling that is still alive had learned to feed itself before the mother vanished.

So many people had watched the mother and the two fluffy owlets in the snag tree. When they fledged and came into our yards we were so pleased. One fledgling even walked across our skylight as my husband sat watching World Cup Soccer and peered down at him. My husband heard the scratch, scratch of the owlet’s claws on the glass before he looked up and saw its curious stare.

Amy Cilimburg, who studies owls and works for Montana Audubon said that Great Horned owls are usually tolerant of humans. They are wide ranging in what they eat, so they can live successfully around people and neighborhoods. She says they will not abandon their young without good reason because they have spent so much energy hatching and fledging them. Owls are very susceptible to pesticides and maybe that was an issue for the mama who disappeared. On the other hand, Amy says that most birds do try to fledge their young as soon as they can, so maybe the female did just that and there was something wrong with the owlet that died.

Sunday morning, August 1st, I walked around the owls’ territory and talked to seven neighbors about toxins. Maybe a mouse could have gotten into d-Con or whatever on their properties and been eaten later by an owl or owlet. None of these people had toxins around except weed sprays for their yards, which are quite diluted when used.

Mat Seidensticker, graduate student in UM’s Environmental Studies and owl researcher for ten years, says there may be three probable causes of the owlet’s death. First, the mother got discouraged having to raise two babies by herself and left earlier than usual, leaving the one owlet to out-compete the other for food. “Bad Mama.” Second, the owlet which died had some sort of lung virus that owls get. The third cause might have been toxins. Mat saw the sick owlet when it was taken in by Brooke Tanner and he said the owlet’s pupils were very dilated and he was moving its head in a strange way, besides being emaciated. But no one knows where the mother has gone, or why.

The story has not yet ended. Seidensticker recently found out that Brooke, along with a veterinarian, did a necropsy on the owlet. Everything inside looked okay. They did not do a toxin screen, but the tissues looked healthy and pink indicating an absence of poison. So, they concluded it died of starvation. Possibly the “mama just couldn’t feed both” scenario that we talked about. It cheers us though, to hear the other owlet at night. We will have to wait until next January or February to see if we hear the “ho hoo hoo hoododo hooooo hooh” of the pair, who usually mate for life, returning to their nesting site to try again.

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Juliette Crump

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