Barn Owl chicks rescued after mother disappears

June 7, 2023
AgricultureBarn OwlRinging

After careful consideration, BirdWatch Ireland has made the decision to remove the two youngest Barn Owl chicks from the cottage nest, being live-streamed on our YouTube channel, so that they can be cared for and eventually released back into the wild when they are healthy and ready. This decision has been made due to the unusual and unfortunate set of circumstances that has seen the disappearance of the female Barn Owl, who is no longer caring for or feeding her chicks. Due to the absence of their mother, it had become apparent that the youngest chicks would not survive, and this informed our difficult decision to intervene.

A family of Barn Owls nesting in an abandoned cottage in north Cork has captured the hearts and imaginations of everyone who has tuned in to watch their breeding season unfold. Thanks to a special live stream nest camera installed by BirdWatch Ireland and streamed live on our You Tube channel, viewers across Ireland and the world have had the privilege of being able to follow their breeding season and learn so much about these rare and normally secretive birds.

The nest camera allows an intimate view of these beautiful birds but has also provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the hardships that they endure and the struggles they face when trying to raise a family. Of course, as so many of us have become familiar with this pair of Barn Owls and their chicks, inevitably we have become invested in their lives and wellbeing. This has brought many joyous occasions but also some tense moments over the course of the past few weeks.

There was much anticipation as the female Barn Owl prepared for laying, with the first egg appearing on the first day of April, followed by four more eggs over the following days. After carefully and constantly incubating the clutch for one month, the first egg hatched on 3rd May, much to the delight of those following the fortunes of this pair. By 11th May all five chicks had hatched, with a significant difference in size between the youngest and the oldest being apparent, as is always the case with Barn Owls.

The female Barn Owl at the cottage nest with her brood of five chicks before her disappearance

The chicks grew rapidly over the coming weeks, under the watchful eye of the female, who stayed by their side constantly. The male’s hunting prowess was on full display, and he was bringing back up to 20 prey items in a night to feed the hungry and now very vocal chicks. As is typical with Barn Owls, the female slowly started to leave the nest for brief periods in late May, as the chicks were old enough at this stage to fend for themselves.

In the final days of May, the female had started to join the male to hunt at night, returning on a regular basis to the nest to feed the chicks. Sadly, the first day of June was the last time that she was seen returning to the nest and checking on her chicks. It is not known what has happened to her since she went missing, but we do know that the male has been the sole provider since the start of June.

The female watching over her brood of five chicks

Due to the absence of the female, despite the male’s best efforts, it quickly became apparent that the youngest two chicks were struggling to get enough food, as their older and stronger siblings were taking all the prey deliveries. As a result, the two younger chicks were growing ever weaker, making them even less capable of competing with their older siblings for food.

We scheduled a visit to the nest to place metal rings on the legs of the chicks on 7th June and also used this as an opportunity to assess the health and condition of the chicks. This assessment confirmed to us that the two youngest Barn Owl chicks would not survive if we returned them to the nest. We discussed the situation with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and, with its support, we made the decision to not return the two youngest Barn Owl chicks to the nest but rather to take them to a care facility which specialises in Barn Owl rehabilitation.

John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer with BirdWatch Ireland commented, ”Although we have witnessed this many times, it has nevertheless been extremely difficult to watch the younger Barn Owls struggle and slowly get weaker over recent days, especially given that they are birds that we know so well and have watched so closely since they hatched.”

He continued,”We usually do not intervene and let nature take its course. However, this is not a typical situation, due to the disappearance of the female, and we collectively decided that given the circumstances, we should do everything that we could to save the chicks.”

Linda Lennon, CEO of BirdWatch Ireland commented, ”This situation also highlights the hardships that these beautiful birds face. This is just one nest, which we have the privilege of watching due to the cameras that are in place, but unfortunately such tragedies occur at many other nests that are not monitored so closely. All too often, adult Barn Owls are killed on roads or die of rodenticide poisoning during the nesting season, greatly reducing the chances of their helpless chicks surviving. What has happened to our little owl family in Cork highlights the need to address these issues that affect Barn Owls and other wildlife”.

Alan McCarthy, Barn Owl Research Officer with BirdWatch Ireland, commented, ”The two youngest Barn Owl chicks have been taken into care by Animal Magic, a superb wildlife rehabilitation facility in Co. Limerick, and everything will be done to ensure that they are given the best chance of survival. Special care is being taken to ensure that they will not become imprinted on humans, so that they can be released back into the wild when they are ready. We hope to be able to bring you updates on the progress of both birds as they recover.”

BirdWatch Ireland would like to acknowledge and thank the National Parks and Wildlife Service for its support and assistance in dealing with this difficult situation. We also extend our heartfelt thanks to Animal Magic, which we know will do a wonderful job of caring for the Barn Owl chicks, just as they have done for countless other Barn Owls over the years. We would also like to thank everybody who has been following the progress of these Barn Owls on our live video stream and has shared our concerns for their health in recent days.

The second youngest of the Barn Owl chicks in the cottage nest

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