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Buddy & Fluffy Barn Owl Nest Box

"BABY" BIRDs In Nest Boxes Have Special Needs!


What a fascinating birding experience this year’s baby season was. It has been a long time since I have gotten that involved with bird watching but back when I began there was no internet so there was no ability to get as up close and intimate as I had just experienced. What was different this time from others is that I have had a “AHA Moment”, a serious revelation that I had never seen or even thought about before.

This new modern day adventure all started with a friend posting a Barn Owl link on her facebook page. After one click I was hooked, then as the time passed I found more cams of more birds, Eagles in NJ, Hawks in downtown Philadelphia, Storks in Spain, Hummingbirds in California, Wood Ducks in Wisconsin, Black capped chicka dees, Blue Birds, and even Loons on water! It was amazing and all from the comfort of my home!

My fascination with avian wildlife began with early memories of a morning dove pair nesting outside our dinning room window when I was 3. That was when birds were “imprinted” into my brain by my mother who also had a love of birds and I became “immersed” with them in my life. There is a whole other story in that so I am going to save it for another time.

I will admit to only over 40 years of bird watching but I will admit that I really learned a lot this time around. So much more that we don’t know goes on inside a nest box that I had never been privy to before was touching off so many memories of baby wildlife behavior I had noticed but didn’t know why. Oh my how I would be doing so much differently now if I was still rehabilitating, but I’m not, what I am still doing is educating and that is where I see a strong need at something I had known, but never really looked at or thought about until now. I also see a need to change the way we do things regarding our responsibility as humans if we put up bird nest boxes and this most assuredly needs to be enforced by laws to protect wildlife as back up because at times well meaning humans are short sighted.

During my beginning years of rehabbing wildlife there was no such thing as wildlife rehabilitators, guidelines, laws, regulations, permits, etc. We earned such titles or labels like “Bird Lady”, “Critter Woman”, “Opossum Lady”, so my beginning title was “Duck Lady”. From there it just grew and grew over the years until I was into everything and that all so Is a whole other story I’ll save for another time.

What I want to address here is that you can’t fool with “Mother Nature”. Everything on our planet has a reason and purpose to it. There are laws of nature that are the very basis and foundation to our survival be it human or animal. We learn in school biology that there are 4 basic needs to life, food, water, shelter and space in order to survive. These key things are necessary for us and each has a very important role in our life. I could go on and on about each one but at this point I am going to focus on what I see as the most important thing for me to address at this time. I can all ways add more latter.


“Housing”, a number one priority to survival, without it life would be hard and driven by the elements and in some cases difficult if not impossible to reproduce and raise a family. Out of this necessity some birds seek out structures and protective areas for raising their babies. These are birds that we refer to as “cavity nesters”. These birds seek out a natural shelter to lay eggs, incubate them and raise their young from the harsh elements or predators. Before humans provided artificial structures, this was always a nest cavity in a tree or rock structure, anything that was considered safe by the parents to rear the young family. They, like many in love, don’t think things through, just making babies, laying eggs, feeding the young and leaving the nest. Nothing beyond that is thought through, yet there is much thought and instinct needed in rearing young. So much to learn in such a short time in the wild world, a whole other article on “Learned behavior” for another time, so this brings me to the point I want to address.

I’m not going to go through all that is involved in rearing young birds but I want to jump ahead to the part about “Fledging”. This is the term used for baby birds when they leave the nest and enter the outside world. But there is also another term that has and I repeat HAS to be put up right next to that word and it is “Branching”. These 2 terms are synonymous together and need to be referenced together and considered together when baby birds are ready to leave the nest. In a previous posting I discussed the various stages of baby birds, “hatchling”, “nestling”, “fledgling” and “brancher” each describing a phase of the young birds life, but the “fledgling” and “brancher” are both at the same period of time.

I do want to make a comment and note here that there are birds that don’t need this, they are the “precocious” ones like Wood Ducks, etc., they leave the safety of the nest box and follow mom. These birds don’t need what I am worried about, they hatch with eyes open and hit the ground ready to go.


Before the eyes are open while in the “hatchling” phase they learn that mothers voice was the clue as to what was happening in the nest. Before hatching they learn their mothers voice and it is her voice that guides their entrance into the world. From there gentle verbal sounds and tones gave a sense of security and well being, much like human mothers singing to their infants, it also signals feeding time with different verbalization, alarm calls for everyone to sit still and not move and then the calls between the 2 parents.

As the hatchlings eyes open becoming “nestlings”, the world is revealed to them they begin learning much more now through visual sense. They see mom, dad, siblings, the nest and in the case of the open tree nesters the sun, sky, tree, branches, leaves, day, night, rain, etc., it’s a complicated world out there and so much to learn.

Nesting parents are so focused on finding suitable and safe environment for raising their young they don’t all ways choose the best places. But over years and from failures and success they learn and adapt. But with interest by humans in “Bird Watching” as a hobby and the advent of “nest boxes” providing more nesting opportunities there is now a necessary element that has been over looked and not properly addressed. It is so important for the successful fledging and development of the baby birds that the fact it has not been addressed or acknowledged just sends frightening anxiety throughout my mind and body. Why it hasn’t been seen or realized up to know I don’t know but I do know that it really needs to be looked at AND resolved for the future. My “AHA” moment.

Before baby birds fledge, they spend a great deal of time in the nest flapping their wings building muscle, jumping around grabbing nest material learning to use their toes and feet and many more behaviors that are “Learned” before leaving the nest. During this time in open nests that are not in boxes, the young venture a bit from the nest to grab onto branches developing their skills. Here I want to also address the fact that these young have an advantage over the nest box young in the fact that they are ‘acclimated” to the outside world. They know sunrise/sunset, rain, wind, directional sound, moving objects, other wildlife i.e. squirrels, other birds, etc., so they are way ahead of the game coming out of the nest then the ones confined to nest boxes.


In a nest box they are limited to what they can see and learn, thus when they exit the nest box for the first time they pretty much have a “sensory overload” and if they are lucky they can quickly retreat back into the nest when startled or danger is near and absorb that adventure into the world. If they are not lucky and have a nest box stuck on a pole in an open field then they are doomed to failure just by the fact they can’t get back in and retreat to regroup their little bird brains.
They are suddenly thrust into the world unprepared and on the ground only to be greeted by frantic parents that then need to 1. Protect them from predators and 2. Get them to safety which can be a good distance from the nest box.

Now the parents have a problem, young that are not ready to be on their own they need to protect and feed and a nest that also needs protecting and tending to. This adds stress to the parents and to the young who are now facing the world unprepared and unskilled in what it takes to survive.

In the case of small song birds that have little bird houses hanging in trees in back yards finding cover may not be that hard. Bushes, hedges and other back yard things allow them to hop up gradually getting higher while providing places to hide from predators affords them a much better opportunity to survive versus the larger birds such as Owls.

Now that Owls are being touted for rodent control in agriculture and now in developed subdivisions with owl nest boxes being sold by vendors on the side of the road and also streamed live on the internet, this has created a large interest by the general public and everyone wants a nest box in their back yard. What a wonderful idea and it is so great to see so many people find the hobby and art of “Bird Watching” so pleasurable, interesting and educational. But, I see a problem and can’t sit silently by while the lives of wild babies are put in jeopardy when there is an easy way to stop needless stress and deaths.


I participated in a study years ago for the City of Orlando on “Back Yard Habitats” in neighborhoods and what was all involved.
This was fascinating going to the neighborhoods and mapping out the homes and surrounding area. If there had been a earth “google” at the time it would have been a wonderful tool to use but in the 1980’s and 90’s this wasn’t available so there was a lot of leg work to it but the reward of recognizing how important back yards are to the lives of urban wildlife was significant. Some thing I learned in the study was that many wild animals use the back yards of subdivisions to move about an area, I called it “Backyard Corridors”. Many have learned that this is a very safe area to move about because there are less hazards such as roads, drainage pits, etc. All though back yards have hazards to with dogs, cats, etc., it is generally much safer than the front yards of homes. Ok, this is a whole article here that I can write about another time, but thought that I would touch on it for a moment.


Back to the nest boxes, it is wonderful to see that people are taking the initiative to promote the use of owls for rodent control, this has most assuredly saved hundreds if not thousands of wild lives (and domestic animals to) by stopping the use of “rodenticides” and killing non targeted species. When rehabilitating, I learned that poisoned wildlife is doomed one way or another. That is why I have such a hard time with what is going on in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the way they are handling the birds there, but, that is a whole other story of concern from my experiences.

Poison has a permanent effect on the neurological and biological workings of an organism and once poisoned they are going to be sick and have problems for the rest of their lives. Myself being poisoned by several exposures, my first as a child riding a bike behind the mosquito truck fogging (how many of us did that in the 60’s), the Exxon-Valdez spill washing oil soaked Otters and research work in Arkansas Little Rock Air Force Base where next door they manufactured the Agent Orange, Blue, Purple, White, DDT, Heptachlor, Lindane, Aldrine, Toulene, etc, the list goes on and I was exposed and it has taken a toll on my life so I do speak from personal knowledge and experience and that is another whole story.

I sincerely applaud the efforts of these people in trying to help the wildlife and the environment by removing an unnecessary evil from our world. This is a wonderful plan and one that I strongly support and know that it is of great benefit for all involved. What I do have a problem with is the lack of study or follow up on what happens to these birds when fledging takes place. It seems all the focus is on the nest box, owlets hatching, the hunting and the rodent count, it ends there in all the research that I am seeing.


Now, from my years of research and work as a wildlife rehabilitator, I know what it takes for babies to fledge successfully.
I am proud to say that I spent several years researching for one of Audubon’s “Breeding Birds Atlas”. Baby birds are wonderful little creatures, so cute and with a brain that is so easily “imprinted” that there is a lot of care in rehabilitation. There is so much “learned behavior” that comes from the parents, just like humans, that being a foster parent to one is very hard and must be done as to not imprint them on humans yet teach them how to survive in the wild, hunt, kill and know their own kind for mating. This was my career for decades and I loved it, the favorite part was after so much hard work caring, feeding, teaching, finally releasing into the wild was such a joy and thrill. But it all ways had an underlying fear of “Will they make it?” in the back of my mind. I know I did everything I could to teach them to be free wild birds, but did I do enough to ensure survival? That thought all ways crept into my mind, what more can I do, what am I forgetting, what am I missing, did I do ok, etc.

I am seeing a HUGE problem and feel it is necessary to focus on this if there is going to be any real meaning to what humans are doing. The concept of nest boxes and owls for rodent control is wonderful but what is being done now in agriculture and suburban tracts is not complete and I know that this needs to be changed. Baby birds need “branching” and a means to get back into the nest for at least the first week of fledging. Fledging doesn’t “just happen”, it is a slow learning/teaching activity that takes place from the nest box to the safety of trees. Without this, IMO, survival rates of the owlets is dangerously low. No wonder wildlife centers are inundated with young owlets not ready to be on their own, many have been found by people, some times in the craziest places. I worry about the ones that haven’t been found and are left exposed in the open to the predators that stalk the fields looking for such an opportunity for an easy meal. This danger in itself is enough to warrant more thorough study of what is needed for successful fledging and flying of owlets.

Many people this spring had the opportunity to witness the process through the streaming of several owl boxes on the internet. I am so grateful to the wonderful people who took the time and made the effort to ensure the safety of the owlets and the successful fledging was their priority. I congratulate them all and think they did a wonderful job considering it was their first time dealing with these creatures of the night. I also want to thank them because had it not been for them this issue wouldn’t of been brought to my realization (AHA moment) that there was a problem with nest boxes being stuck on poles in the middle of a treeless habitat. There was also an opportunity to witness with the artificial nest boxes a natural nest in a tree cavity complete with ants, bees and every other creepy crawly thingy. This gave everyone a perspective of what a natural nest cavity and rearing young in a truly wild setting was like.

HOW CAN WE FIX THIS? is so easy to correct and can be done many ways with different options considering the location, habitat and environmental situations surrounding the nest box. The easiest fix is designing a branching system from PVC pipe wrapped with nylon sissel rope at least 1 inch apart per wrap and then going back in a criss cross pattern to provide for a rough grabbing surface that can be attached to the nest box or pole itself. PVC being light weight and weather proof would be the best, simplest and most cost efficient and nylon sissel will be fine in the sun and other elements. Taking into account also the need for a strong grabbing, launching and landing needs of the owlets feet, this needs to be sturdy and at least several inches in diameter because after being in a nest the whole experience of grabbing onto a branch and curling your talons is brand new and a “Learned behavior”. It would also be easy to design a perch type structure out of PVC to stick in the ground (or a 5 gallon bucket of concrete to move later if needed) in front of the nest box with extensions starting at least 3 feet above ground to allow for fallen babies to find the way back up to the nest and safety.

We all saw how that worked at 3 of the 4 nest boxes we watched that provided this. The 4th which did not provide any branching showed us just exactly what happens when there is nothing. Lucky for those babies help eventually arrived due to so many people being upset and eventually they had the branching they needed to continue to the fledging process, but I am worried about the ones we don’t see. Also, the branching provided was way to small in diameter as we watched the remaining owlet struggling to hold on to such a small branch and moving about on them was difficult being so twig like. It wasn’t sturdy enough either to hold up under wing exercising, landing and take offs as we saw that if fell apart.


I also want to say something about the size of these nest boxes. Ideally, as I have witnessed and observed the optimal size is approximately 22 x 22 x 24 with a nest hole cut approximately 6-8” high into the side. With a hole the proper size for a Barn Owl you can have a perch on the outside because a predator like a Great Horn Owl will not be able to get it’s bigger head in. Also a thought would be some kind of perch on the inside at the hole for more than one baby to sit on and watch the world as they mature. Along with those suggestions I feel it is wise to have a front porch across the front of the nest box for all the babies to congregate along with some type of rough strapping on the roof since this is a point of take off, landing and wing flapping so they need to be able to grip with their talons while they do this activity.

Watching these nests I noticed how much room the young owlets need once they are ready to start moving around more with their jumping, taloning nesting pellet material and wing flapping behavior. The small boxes don’t allow for much movement at all, just simple wing spread/stretch that most times is getting impinged from the sides, roof and siblings. Also noted is that in the heat of the day the owlets lay down, stretch out and pant to cool their selves. In the smaller nests it isn’t possible to do that and another big factor is no air circulation to help cool and the addition of the siblings body heat must make it miserable to endure the afternoons until the sun goes down to give them much needed relief which brings me to another point about ventilation. Simply slapping a wooden box together does not make a safe or comfortable nest, there has to be some kind of significant air flow and drainage provided because if there isn’t then there is a great possibility for heat exhaustion, bacteria multiplying and other problems developing from stagnate air, decaying prey, pellets and poop (which BTW in avians is a combination of urine and feces). There are laws against leaving pets in closed vehicles, etc., but nothing to protect the wildlife and little lives that are depending on us using our brains. In open nests in trees the babies by instinct raise their little behinds up and all most over the side of the nest to excrete keeping the nest clean. That isn’t the case in these enclosed nest boxes and I have been so fortunate to know how bad they can smell.


I think I have pretty much covered what I wanted to get out into the public forum and am going to be hoping that the public sees the need and understands that the wildlife needs them. We need to push the entities that are in charge that there is much more to an owl or any avian nest box besides just sticking it up. There are little wild lives that are counting on us to make it safe for them and I can only just accept the fact that until now there was no help, but I can go on now knowing that again, I have tried to make a difference for the wildlife and our planet with my “AHA Moment”. I hope as many people as possible will take action and get involved in their own community and also afar via emails, letters, etc to help these precious little wild lives. All ways remember, it is up to us humans to make change, everything we do impacts the environment and we must remain vigilant in our effort to Save The Wildlife, after all it is the future.

Peace and blessings
© 2010

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