June 26th I alluded to how slim Pea Pickers chances of surviving in the first part of this story. Well, when I returned the next morning, I witnessed the female feeding the smallest chck to the other two.
I was frustrated as I always am when a nest loses a chick. But, I know by past experiences just how the percentages where all against him. I've been involved with 25 great gray owl familys over the past 27 years. Of those, only three times did the third chick survive to fledging. That's only 12%!
I must note: These familys were all in the Yellowstone-Beartooth Region. A friend of mine has seen two different familys fledge five chicks each in the Teton National Park area. That area has considerable more aspen forest, so also more pocket gophers.
To make me even more frustrated, the male brought in three gophers that evening.
July1st I had been away from the nest for five days and was somewhat apprehensive of what might greet me when I reached my viewing point. To my surprise, the female was off the nest, sitting just behind and above the snag. Two light fuzz balls moved around in the cavity. Boy, how they have grown! Brad Bulin was with me today hoping to capture some footage for his films. We had just set up from two different vantage points when Brad got my attention. "Dan, I think I've got three chicks"! I scrambled up to where he stood. Sure enough, Pea Picker was still alive! There had been four chicks all along!
When the female flew in later to preen her brood, little Pea Picker forced his way to the front. His tiny size made him look like a baby bunny hanging out with mountain lion kittens. I couldn't help but laugh when ever I spotted him peeking over the rim of the nest.
I knew his chances still weren't good. But the weather had turned dry. Maybe the male can now bring in that one extra gopher per day.
I drove home, smiling all the way.
I had to go back for a look that evening. The female was once again off the nest. Right away I saw the two large chicks, their gray plumage coming in fast now. Finally, I saw Pea Pickers white shape move past an opening in the next rim. For some reason he wasn't peeking over the edge like his two brothers.
An hour passed when the female suddenly became interested in something going on in the nest. She floated in and reached down with her beak into the floor of the cavity. When she raised her head again, she was holding a limp white chick. Pea Picker had died! He had been so full of life just a few hours before. How can fate change so quickly?
I photographed her starting to feed him to the other chicks. Then after I watched a chick struggle to get a wing down his throat, I pointed my camera down, not needing to see anymore.
Eventually, the female finished with her task then flew back to her perch.
At that moment, I hated her for what she had done. And I despised the two remaining chicks for their good fortune of being born first. I hated the horror of natures natural selection. And I questioned myself for refusing to step over that invisible line that supposedly separted right from wrong. I had seen the future and had done nothing to alter the outcome.