Tag Archives: great horned owls


Long Cold Winter

Brief sunshine and blue skies between the snowfall. Beautiful!

Brief sunshine and blue skies between the snowfall. Beautiful!

I read something interesting recently. Apparently here in Scotland (and the whole UK I suppose) we are on the same latitude as Siberia. The only reason we don’t have the same cold and extreme weather as over there is because of the Gulf Stream bringing a more temperate climate.

Drifting snow at the Scottish Owl Centre last week

Drifting snow at the Scottish Owl Centre last week

You could have fooled me lately!

They say we have ‘unseasonably late’ cold weather, and for March that’s true, but looking back at my blogs from twelve months ago I find I was complaining about the heat and how I was having to water the plants twice a day – in March!

Now that's a Snowy Owl!

Now that’s a Snowy Owl!

Serves me right I suppose, I should learn to shut up and take whatever weather comes our way.

That’s hard for me though, when I worry about what it is doing to the owls in the centre. At this time of year we have trained birds at their lower ‘hunting weight’ but they need that extra bit just to keep going. If they get too much food they don’t fly, so it’s a difficult balance sometimes.

We also have birds sitting on eggs. This week I was counting up on the ‘Breeders Board’ and was happy to write on our tenth species laying eggs. Our female Siberian Eagle Owl has surprised us all by laying 6 eggs! Some eggs have been due to hatch lately too. A brief window of mild weather a month ago fooled some of the owls into breeding early; a week early for our Great Horned Owls, two months early for the Ashy Faced and White Faced Owls. Now we have had two weeks of bitter easterly wind and light to heavy snowfall most days and it’s starting to take its toll.

Yesterday I had a niggling worry that the female Great Horned was spending too long off the nest on her ‘loo break’. At the end of the day I gave in to the niggle and went in to check on the nest. Now these owls are not best pleased when someone goes in their aviary, and they do have the reputation for being the most aggressive owl in the world… but this pair seem to recognise that I don’t mess around and just want to keep out of my way. Good plan owls! Well I climbed the ladder and found the nest empty. There were two eggs on the ground, thrown out of the nest during the blizzards on the 13th and 16th of the month – right bang in the middle of the hatching period. One egg had been fertile and an owlet was well developed when it was thrown out into the snow. A real shame, but we remind ourselves that this is still pretty early in the year and breeding season for these owls. There is plenty of time for this pair to ‘recycle’ and try again, and this is something they have done once before. (Go look back at the blog for this date last year) Fingers crossed for them then.

My fingers are remaining so crossed these days and it’s so cold I’m surprised I can move them apart! It’s freezing!

In better news, we passed our second Zoo Inspection in the last week. The inspectors seemed really pleased and happy with the work done at the centre over the last 12 months, and liked what we have planned for the coming months and years too. This was a big relief for me as I’d always approached these inspections with some trepidation before I came to work here in Scotland. This inspection went so well I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming! So that’s us good to go until 2016 and our next inspection to renew our zoo license.

Well I think I’ll finish up this chilly blog with a chilly pic of a chilly owl. Here’s a close up of Hudson the Great Horned Owl with a dusting of snow on his head.

Snowy Owl? No it’s Hudson the Great Horned Owl, covered in snow!


Back in Black

Welcome to the return of my blog! After a summer haitus in which I had expected to migrate over to new software, I am returning to the WordPress version for the time being. I hope whatever technical problems I encountered before have been resolved during the break.

So, what has been happening at the Scottish Owl Centre? Too much for me to say in one blog that’s for sure! A summary of recent events would be that we have been busy! Last week we had new owls arrive, five school visits, a photo workshop and some decidedly undecided weather!

Today started a little differently from the norm. As well as the daily clean of the aviaries we needed to catch up the two juvenile Great Horned Owls to take feather samples. This was needed so that we can have the DNA tested so we know the sex of the birds. It often surprises people to learn that this is the most reliable way to tell male and female apart, but as plumage is almost identical in the majority of owl species there is little else to go by. You could go by size perhaps, as the females are larger, up to a third larger, than the males. This isn’t very reliable though as individual birds may be big or small, a big male the same size as a small female for instance. As another owl centre is looking for a male to pair up with their female we had better be sure we definitely have a male to send them!

Great Horned Owls are THE most aggressive owl in the world. Parents will be doubly so if they believe their offspring are under threat. With this in mind we took a net, thick welding gloves and two large pet carrier boxes round to the aviary along our Boreal Boulevard. Our task had to be done before the centre opened to the public, for obvious reasons. As I have caught up many ‘angry birds’ in my time working with owls I went in with the net first. The adult male was my first target – the one most likely to attack. I wasn’t that worried as the birds would not be too wound up at this time of year, but he needed to be secured if we were to spend any time with staff inside the aviary. The owlets are around 6 months old now so old enough to be learning to look after themselves in the wild. The parents wouldn’t be as defensive as a few months ago that’s for sure. Still, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

When I stepped into the aviary the four owls took one look at the net and decided it was ‘every owl for him-or-her self’ and flew in all directions. It was hard to keep track of which one was which when they were on the move but I followed the male until I got the net in his flight path. Netted and carried over to one of the pet carriers he was soon inside and put out of the way. Next target was the adult female. I got her pretty quickly but before I could get her into the carrier one of the owlets blundered into the side of the carrier and got a talon stuck. I put the net down and got hold of the owlet in my gloves. His talon wasn’t jammed in so I retrieved the bird and restrained it in my arms. It sometimes feels odd to be cradling an owl like a human baby but it really is the most secure way to handle them!

With my hands full now I asked Lobo, one of our trusty volunteers, to put the netted female into the waiting carrier. Lobo has handled many scary beasties both big and small while working in zoos so I knew he could cope with this owl with ease. Job done we were ready to collect our feather samples…

My fellow keeper Lauren entered the aviary with the necessary equipment and as quick as possible plucked a few feathers from the breast of the owl in my arms. Having a moment to get a good look at the owl I was pretty sure this one was male. The markings were similar to those of the adult male, and this bird lay quite still as I held it firmly. In my experience the males usually do this, while the females put up more of a fight! It didn’t take long for Lauren to finish taking the sample, then she sealed the plastic bag she had put them in and labelled it ‘small’. While we were doing this Lobo had netted the other youngster. As we were done with the first owlet I released it to the further end of the aviary from where we were standing and then retrieved the other owlet from the net. Oh boy was this one feisty! Noticeably bigger and stronger than the first owlet, angrier too, this was definitely a girl in my estimation! Restraining this one I felt the owl’s strength as it squirmed and writhed in my grip. I decided to try to calm her down a little by covering her eyes with one of my gloves. It worked for a while, long enough for Lauren to take three or four feathers from the breast again. Bagged and labelled ‘large’ she was done. I released the owl to join its sibling and we all started to depart from the aviary. I was the last person in and released the adults one at a time; the male last. The four birds flew up to their nest shelf for safety and the male gave his territorial hoot; telling us in no uncertain terms he was displeased. We left them in peace!

While all of this was going on our centre still needed cleaning, thankfully covered by volunteers Jo and Gavin. Sometimes there just isn’t enough time in the day to get all the routine duties done before opening time and our first flying display, but with enough help like today we had everything covered well.

The rest of the day was a breeze after the adrenaline rush of catching up four of the most aggressive owls in the world!

The three flying displays went well, with seven different species of owl flying today. At the end of the day we just had time to squeeze in a training session for one of our newest team members…

Fetlar the Snowy Owl is almost five months old now and almost ready to join the display team in the arena again. Yesterday’s training session went well, and was filmed and uploaded onto YouTube by Lauren. You can watch it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qoEclv4fsU4, and also a video of Fetlar singing in the bath http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_s9lSZq818 after a triumphant flight!

Right, time to wrap up this blog. I hope it uploads okay, and I hope I can log back in smoothly next time. Not sure when exactly next time is so keep your eyes peeled!

Bye for now!

Facing my fear

It was a good day today. The weather wasn’t great but didn’t put off a good number of visitors coming to see the centre. Our flying displays went particularly well today.

As well as flying Prince the Ashy Faced Owl – who was excellent and pretty ready for public shows now – I spent some time with Broo the European Eagle Owl on my glove, and flew Hudson the Great Horned Owl in the arena for the first time.

We have had one or two people visiting the centre this week who have held an owl to help get over their phobia of birds. I bet they would never have guessed that I have an ingrained fear of them myself, well of one anyway…

Hudson is a great looking owl, one of the larger species, and like the majority of Great Horned Owls he is quite imposing and fierce. I have been more than a bit wary of him since I began working at the Scottish Owl Centre. After all, the Great Horned Owl is one species of owl credited with the death of a human! Just their reputation and stories of previous colleagues of mine being injured by these owls has put what I regarded as a healthy level of terror in me. Having said that, Hudson has been hand reared and trained to do the public flying demonstrations. In shows at the first home of the Scottish Owl Centre, Hudson flew very well and never showed any signs of aggression to the audience or staff. So it’s just me worrying too much perhaps? Well if it’s my fear that is the problem then I have to confront it and get over it.

In my first couple of weeks working here I found that Hudson was one of only a few of the owls that hadn’t taken the move to the new site very well. He was wet and weak and unable to fly up to a perch. He had plenty of food and shelter in his aviary but he just wasn’t using it. I think Great Horned Owls are wound a bit tighter mentally than most owls, if you get my meaning, or maybe ‘highly strung’ is a better phrase. Either way he was unwell. At that time the centre didn’t have the ‘Rec’ Room, or Recovery Room, so there was nowhere I could take Hudson for him to dry out and feed up. I decided I would take him into my house for a night or two. I had a spare bedroom that lacked furniture so he could have the run of the room until he recovered. Considering my phobia or fear of this owl and his kind I likened this to inviting Hanibal Lecter round for dinner! Hudson recovered well and was soon back outdoors in his aviary. I fed him as much food as he wanted and eventually he recovered to be in fine condition again. During this time he and I have had a rocky relationship as he has tried to bully and intimidate me into dropping his food and running for my life! Well that isn’t healthy and can’t go on, so I’ve had to bolster my courage and stand up to Hudson. He is fine with the people he knew before moving here, but I was the ‘new kid’.

Now, Hudson is in flying condition and at his flying weight. He has flown to my glove a few times within his aviary, and gradually I have overcome a lot of my fear. Taking him for a walkabout around the centre two or three times has helped me a lot too.

Today I decided to just go for it; to fly Hudson in the arena in a training session. I have worked with another strong willed bird of prey before, a buzzard in fact, and decided to treat Hudson the same as that bird. I keep my attention focussed and keep my fingers out of his reach as I put his jesses in and take him out of his aviary. Weighing him and noting down his weight today I then took him through the door to the indoor display arena. Once in there it was like a light switched on in his brain. Flying arena; perches; flying. In the arena he was in ‘business mode’ and not showing any of his behind the scenes aggressive behaviour to me. Off he went to the middle perch. I got food ready and called him back. After a moment of hesitation and he came back to the perch nearest to the door. I got him to do three or four half lengths of the arena and two full lengths before I decided to quit while I was ahead.

Once he was back in his aviary I relaxed. Whew, I had done it. I had faced my fear and all had gone well.  🙂

I flew Sarabi in two shows today and as always she was brilliant and the audience loved her. After her shows we tried something new with her. She has been flying up to a high perch in the corner of the arena and swooping down (over people’s heads!) to one of the middle perches for a few shows now, but we wanted her to go right along to the furthest perch. We tried something different once the arena was empty. As food is the great motivator in life we offered a bigger prize for Sarabi to do this maneouver. To my delight she figured it out in a second and was in the air and veering between posts to finally swoop in on the perch – I hadn’t even finished the word I was saying to call her over! She is one smart owl (0r maybe just a bit greedy!) and she just goes from strength to strength! 🙂

Well that was quite exhausting so I’m off to bed. ‘Til tomorrow then, goodnight.

Nesting, nesting, 1,2,3?

It was a noisy busy day at the site of the Scottish Owl Centre today. The building work continued with machinery flattening down a new surface in the indoor display arena, while the joiners got to grips with making gates in the safety barriers, the trap door system for two of the trained bird aviaries (more on this in another blog), and installing facilities in the ‘Dark Room’ and owl recovery area, and fencing around the pond.

So a lot of banging and clanging about then!

My owl keeper tasks continued as normal of course, and with Stuart joining me on his university placement  again, I continued training him as we cleaned the aviaries. These basic tasks have been quite a challenge to perform while the centre has been a building site but they need doing. I’ve become quite used to running hosepipes over and around mini diggers, skips waiting for removal, scaffolding, piles of wood or gravel, all sorts of stuff. The place will seem quite empty once they are all gone!

The Ural Owl female has been sitting in the nest for most of the last few days but has been getting up every now and then, usually around feeding time. Today she stayed on the nest for the full day. The male sat nearby all day too. This could mean that she is ready to lay eggs but I won’t start counting the dates off on the calendar until she has stayed on the nest for three full days, just in case. With the Great Horned Owls most likely feeding owlets, the Milky Eagle Owl incubating two eggs, could the Ural Owls be the third pair to breed at the new site?

In the Rainforest Realm the birds all seemed to have had a good first night. When I checked in on them first thing I was curious to see where they all were and where they had been during the night. (I can tell this by where there are droppings of course!) I was pleased to see that the Black-banded Owls had been exploring and used almost all of the perches in their aviary – they hadn’t taken the move that well to begin with so this was good. The Brown Wood and African Wood Owls seemed settled. The Ferruginous Pygmy Owls flitted about but seemed to have taken to their new home well. Woody the Tawny Frogmouth was sitting on the furthest perch at the back of the pen but later flew over to the nearest to the front of the aviary so he could look around at what was going on. I’m pleased he is becoming more bold each day, and his appetite is growing. Strangely, the owl that I had expected to take the move best of all was the one who was completely overcome by it all. The Southern Boobook Owl had been quite steady in the temporary holding pen but installed into her proper home she didn’t want to know. She spent the whole day inside the nestbox, peeking out occasionally. All of the other birds had eaten overnight but she had not touched her food. Oh well, it just goes to show that the birds can still surprise you. I expect she will just take another day or two and then settle in fine.

Well with a big day tomorrow I think I’d better sign off and get to bed. ‘Til tomorrow then, gnite!

Spring Cleaning

Another day of cleaning for me today, as promised! I was determined to make the most of the quiet weekend to do as much of the real thorough clean up of the aviaries as possible. With all the noise around during the week I really don’t like to add to the stress and disturbance for the owls.

Like yesterday I concentrated on getting quality rather than quantity, and cleaned another section of the centre. The sections cleaned yesterday got a quick hose over to keep them up to speed, but today I was ‘spring cleaning’ along the row that currently houses Barn Owls, Tawny Owls, Ural Owls and an African Wood Owl. All that is left now is the Wee Owl corner, and I gave that a preliminary hose over today to make it easier tomorrow. I know I go on about it a lot but having working hosepipes makes a big difference to my daily work; like providing fresh water in every aviary in the centre every day.

Later this week the aviaries I spring cleaned today will see new occupants arrive as we shuffle birds into the correct aviaries. The row I worked on today will be the first part of our Walk to the North Pole feature, and so we will be moving in Tengmalm’s Owls, Northern Hawk Owls, and another I will reveal later this week when the rest of the collection arrive! We hope to run guided tours along this Walk, explaining about each owl and it’s life out in the wild and the further along the walk the further north you travel. Along that Walk you see the Great Horned Owls, and today I was pleased to see that the female remained on the nest (and eggs hopefully!) even while I was cleaning the aviary adjacent. A good sign that she is now in for the long haul and will see the incubation through to hatching. We will have some particularly noisy machinery on site over the next few days but I have high hopes now that she will sit tight. Part of my study back at university was on how birds were affected by human disturbance. My subjects were wild birds, Capercaillie, up in the Scottish highlands, but my research – combined with words of wisdom from my previous manager – show that many captive birds and animals are quite tolerant of work like we are having done at the Scottish Owl Centre as long as they can see what is going on. They watch and remain alert, but realise that the noises are not coming up close, and danger is not present in their own ‘territory’ that is their enclosure.

This also answers a question I got from two of the joiners in today to do some more work on completing the last aviaries being built. They hadn’t really noticed what happens when I go in the pens to clean before, and today passed by as I was scrubbing the walls of the Barn Owl enclosure. The owls were disturbed from their perch as I was cleaning the wall behind it, so they were flying around at the front of the pen. The joiners were surprised that I wasn’t bothered that two owls were flying around at head height. The birds weren’t trying to hurt me – believe me they could if they wanted! – but were more interested in getting away from wherever I was at the time. Once I had done with their pen they went back to perching at the back. I had gone beyond the edge of their zone of tolerance and their thought was just to flee. Once the disturbance was gone they settled quickly.

“Don’t any of them attack you?” they asked. “No. Well those would yes, but I’m not going in there!” I replied pointing at the Great Horned Owls. Well, would you?

Something to think about, until tomorrow, gnite!

This Valentines Day, say it with chicken?

Valentines Day at the Scottish Owl Centre, and lurrve is in the air…

… for some of the owls at least!

Some of the young couples have been mentioned in my blog before; the Great Horned Owls that hoot through the night, the Siberian Eagle Owls, the Tropical Screech Owls, all have been hooting and calling for some time now. Last month the female Siberian Eagle Owl laid two eggs – she didn’t sit on them and they weren’t fertile, but it was a promising start as the pair had only been together around 5 months. The male is still hooting from evening to dawn and takes her gifts of food. I have been noticing something strange in their aviary the last few days and today came to a theory about what is going on…

Our aviaries are brand new, obviously, and so far haven’t had much in the way of plants put in them. One or two do have small leylandii conifer trees planted in them, and the Siberian Eagle Owl pen is one of them. As you can see from the photo here this tree does not look happy! Looking closer you can see the bark has been ‘nibbled’ and a lot of bits of branches and leaves have been pulled off. Is the female getting broody? Is she pulling at nesting material? Most owls don’t make nests, just use someone elses old one, but what other reason could there be? Maybe it isn’t her, maybe it is the male? Say it with flowers, or say it with chewed up bits of leylandii tree? A mystery!

Well that’s something I’ll have to keep watching and wondering, but what about new romance? Well we have that too.

Our pair of Snowy Owls have bred in the past and have been one of the most easily settled in the new location for the Scottish Owl Centre. The male in particular seems to really enjoy sitting on the huge rocks quite close to the front of the aviary, where he often catches a bit of sun. Well today sunbathing wasn’t the only thing on his mind. Food is another of his most favourite things in the whole world, so for him to offer some to his mate shows true adoration! With Snowy Owls it isn’t just a case of ‘hoot hoot here have some food’, no, he has a very special dance.

It does look bizarre to you and me, but he picks up some food in his bill and shuffles about making very odd noises, more like a pig than a bird! His body crouched low to the ground and his wings held up half open from his body, he sways his head left and right. He does look very silly! At the moment she seems to agree, not being impressed one bit. Keep in there lad, even Romeo didn’t win fair Juliet in one day!

I will of course keep you updated on how our hopeful romances progress – hopefully we will see some more eggs soon!

Not all of our owls are in pairs. Some are single birds. We’re trying our best to find them a partner and some have already been located. In a few weeks we will have new birds arriving at the Centre. A mate for our Spectacled Owl, a mate for our Striped Owl, one for our African Wood Owl, all arriving before we open to the public. There are a few owls that we still haven’t found a pair for yet. So it’s a bit of Lonely Hearts for our hopeful singles.

And then of course there is Sarabi the Milky Eagle Owl. Although not technically looking for a male Milky Eagle Owl as she is an imprint, and doesn’t know she is an owl. She has been feeling a little broody lately. She sang to me while I was fitting a catch to the back of the door of her aviary today. Thanks Sarabi, lovely voice!

And with that I think I’d better sign off before it gets too silly round here! Gnite all!

Slippery When Wet

Another good day of progress at the Scottish Owl Centre today!

As the forecasted ‘freezing rain’ didn’t arrive – at least where we are – and it seemed to be the ordinary kind falling, it meant the morning started off just a little damp but a lot milder than the last two days. Good news when you work outdoors all day! If only the ice hadn’t turned to mud instead…we were slipping about all day one way or another. 😉

The work on ‘Phase Two’ aviaries has really come on in the last few days but today I got a real idea of the shape and size of the enclosures. As you can see from the pictures, the area that just last week was a forest of bare upright poles set into the ground in some complex pattern is now filled with the frames and roofing of four aviaries in the Rain Forest Realm and the photographic area is now roofed too. The Little Owl aviary is there now as well and waiting for the door and mesh. Next to that pen I could see today how long the aviary will be for the Long-eared Owls too. A nice length will be good for the birds that hunt in forest clearings and along hedgerows when out in the wild.

Aviary size is something that is very important of course, to the owl, to the visitor and to the keepers and those looking after these birds in captivity. Ideally you want a large space for the birds, but the danger there is that if the aviary is too big and made of solid mesh walls and roof then the bird may injure itself if panicked into flying into it at speed. At the new site for the Scottish Owl Centre we have some of the largest aviaries I’ve ever seen for owls in the UK – for species like the Siberian Eagle Owls, Great Horned Owls, Ural Owls and the Snowy Owls – tall and long and giving plenty of space to fly. They are not too large though, just a good size for these birds.

Speaking of size… the best thing of the day for me today was seeing the HUGE wingspan of the Milky Eagle Owl in flight! This of course was Sarabi, or Sarah to her old friends, one of our ‘imprint’ birds that are trained to take part in public flying demonstrations. If you’ve been reading any of my previous blog entries you probably know that she has been doing very well in her training so far. Starting with short hops from perch to glove for food in her aviary, she then did so well sitting on the glove that we could go for walkabouts around the park and into Reception, where she met some of the local people who come to Polkemmet Country Park either to play golf, walk the dog, walk themselves, or to visit the cafe (it’s the awesome cupcakes I tell you!). You may have read in my blog that Sarabi has started to fly free in the Indoor Display Arena. On two occasions now she has made two flights covering half the distance of the arena. I have been so surprised each time! Well today we took Flying Lessons to another couple of levels. Today she weighed in at 2017 grams and was much more interested in food and her surroundings. Setting her on a middle perch I called her to fly half the length of the room – like the last two times. No problem. Then I placed her on the perch at one end of the arena and walked right the way down to the other end. With little hesitation she flew, and wow! She flew slow and quite low but I was really taken with her wings, so long! She looked fantastic and flew the whole length two more times before I gave her a short flight and her reward. As we stood amazed we reckoned this was probably the furthest this owl has flown in a long long time. We are really pleased to be able to give her this space and this chance to show off. If she can keep this up she will be a real star in our shows! Fingers crossed for her then 🙂

And that’s my lot for today so I’ll sign out. Take care all, gnite 🙂