An absolute hoot

Closeup of a great horned owlet in a tree.
A great horned owlet outside Dean Dr. Dori Borjesson’s office window outside Leo K. Bustad Hall on the WSU Pullman campus. Photo by College of Veterinary Medicine/Ted S. Warren.

A feathery, weeks-old great horned owlet was recently reunited with its family by Washington State University veterinarians after falling from its nest last month on the Pullman campus.

The owlet, its sibling and its parents have become an attraction to many, especially those around the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, where the adolescent owls are learning to fly and have found a haven in the evergreen trees, in addition to convenient and quick veterinary care a stone’s throw away.

“Great horned owls start hopping in and out of their nest onto nearby branches at around six weeks of age, and it’s not uncommon for them to fall down and end up in a bad spot,” said WSU wildlife veterinarian Dr. Marcie Logsdon.

Great horned owls do not build their own nests but instead repurpose old nests made by other birds, such as crows and magpies. Because of this, some babies fall out even younger.

For the past five years, nestlings of the mating pair of owls have frequented the nearby WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital for various falls from their nest near the Fine Arts parking garage.

“At least once a year we get to help the babies out of some pretty precarious spots,” Logsdon said.

Great horned owls do not build their own nests but instead repurpose old nests made by other birds, such as crows and magpies.

In this case, as is most common, there were no injuries, and the fallen owl was banded and returned in a more secure, artificial nest consisting of a laundry basket covered in tree branches The laundry basket was secured to a nearby tree.

The artificial nest provided a safe, out of the way spot for the owlet where his parents could continue to care for him, however he quickly outgrew it and was seen in various locations around the parking garage. Shortly thereafter the owls ventured across Stadium Way and moved in right outside Bustad Hall, home to WSU’s veterinary medicine program.

In a given year, the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital may see 30–40 great horned owls, many of which are babies too young to fly. In the last several years WSU veterinarians have focused on returning these young owls to their parents if possible. On occasion, the nearby owl family has also served as a surrogate family to orphaned great horned owlets brought into the hospital.

Great horned owls will often care for an additional baby if it is placed in the nest or with their family group. 

“Wildlife rehabilitators can raise baby owls, but we can’t teach them how to find a nesting spot or fend off predators,” Logsdon said. “If we can instead help these parents keep these babies it gives them a better chance of survival in the long term.”

While great horned owls aren’t threatened as a species, the birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. Logsdon said the WSU Pullman campus is prime habitat for great horned owls.

“Our campus is beautiful, and we have a lot of roosting spots for them,” she said. “We have a lot of tall trees on campus, and good hunting territory around the university.”

The owls were visible in recent weeks, but they won’t be easy to find anymore, as they are nearing full flight capability and starting to keep up with their parents. Logsdon said the owlets will be hooting around campus until October when they will leave to find their own territory and mates.

Anyone who sees an owl is OK to observe but should give space if they are vocalizing or appear to be in distress. To report injured wildlife, contact the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at 509‑335‑0711.

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