This was supposed to be a log of activities at the great gray nest. I like to wait until nesting is over to write about the happenings. Now that the nesting season is over, I can now relate the strange events of my owl family.
Like I said, I planned to just present a nest log, but a story unfolded instead. Large enough to present in two parts.
As I wrote of in two previous stories, this nest was discovered despite a bear’s imposition and in country steep and full of deadfall. I’m still wearing a baseball sized scrape in my back from one of my many falls.
Well, here it is. Heartbreak and triumph. But really just one of the many stories happening every day in the forest.
It had been several days since I last visited the nest. I did not see the third chick and expected the worst, when the male suddenly appeared carrying a huge pocket gopher. The female rose to accept the meal and there it was. The third chick! Like always the largest offspring was offered the gopher. For 4 to 5 minutes the chick struggled to swallow the furry morsel. Finally its mother took it away from him and gave it to the second largest. It too tried unsuccessfully to swallow its meal. The big owl then offered it to the youngest. Of course if his bigger siblings couldn’t down it, he had no chance. Mom was then forced to shred the gopher and feed it to her chicks in pieces. This was a lifesaver to the smallest owl-let. If the largest had been able to eat the prey whole, the smallest would have probably gotten no food this night. I figure that meal gave him two more days.
Days later, I was once again perched on the high slope watching the nest. Mom was gone so three chicks were exposed to the sky. I noticed the only owlet begging was the smallest. No food arrived. The weather had turned windy and rainy. Hunting would be difficult.
My good friend Brad Bulin and I hiked up to the owls a couple of evenings later. We were hoping he could capture some footage of the owls being fed.
The female was on the nest. Two chicks peeked out through her feathers. The third was not visible. It could be hidden under its mother. An hour had passed when every one got excited. I assumed the male passed by, but did not have any prey to deliver. It seemed to trigger a memory in the female owl as she reached down with her beak and pulled at something at her feet. We soon realized it was the third chick. It had died. For the next few minutes she pulled off shreds of meat and fed it to her remaining chicks.
Nothing in nature goes to waste.
The owl-lets had to move to the edge of the nest to give their mother more room. As the big owl ripped a piece from the carcass, her head jerked up, striking a chick. It teetered for a moment, and then tumbled from the nest.
We gasped in shock as we watched the unfortunate owl-let bounce limb to limb until it landed with a thump some 60 feet below.
In the last 15 minutes our nest had gone from three chicks to one! What’s even more amazing, Brad had captured the entire scene on film.
We climbed down to examine the fallen owl-let. It was trembling noticeably and seemed unable to use its right leg.
What to do?
The little owl was probably ten days from fledging and had a bum leg to boot. This means it would be unable to climb back up into the highest branches. It was only a matter of time until it would be found and killed.
We looked around a bit. Upslope stood a rotten snag about 12 feet high. If it was sturdy enough, it might serve as a temporary nest. I rigged up a sling with a forked stick and a handkerchief. Brad, who is experienced in owl research, stuffed the chick inside and I lifted the little fella up, and then dumped him in the cavity.
That should keep him safe for the night. But we’ll probably have to put him back in again. What we needed was a ladder.
The next day we returned with hammer, nails and saw. I also brought 2X4 slats to make our job easier.
As I expected, the owl-let was back on the ground. We got busy, and with the help of my daughter, Cassie, and her boyfriend Kevin, we constructed a ladder. We then leaned it against the snag and I climbed up. The inside was big enough but jagged. I passed down my hat and Kevin filled it with crushed decayed wood. I dumped the contents into the snag. Two more hat fulls later and the nest was ready.
Brad climbed up and I passed him the owl-let. He carefully placed it back in the snag and we left the area. Momma owl had watched the entire process from a nearby perch. I had expected the female or male for that matter to dive at us. But they didn’t. Now we’ll have to see if they’ll accept this nest and feed this youngster as well as the one still high in the nest 40 yards away. I call this our two-nest experiment.