Return to the Blog Home Page
What to do if you find a tawny owlet on the ground.
I have been watching a pair of tawny owls in the valley below my gallery for many years now. These owls and their offspring have inadvertently become among my most regular wildlife models and feature in so many of my paintings that I have a vested interest in keeping them here. I made them a nest box out of an old beech tree stump which I hoisted into a tall sycamore where they roost, and so far they have nested in it every year. I also put food out on my bird table all year long for this tawny family. The owls have become so used to the arrangement that they will now bring their chicks to the garden to feed, which is wonderful because I can watch them from my living room window.
Tawny owls nest early. This pair usually lay their first egg in mid-March. The chicks fledge at four to five weeks old and are notoriously adventurous. They often start to explore their surroundings at just three weeks old, well before they have even learnt to fly. During this phase, called ‘branching’, they walk, climb, jump and flutter around in the trees at night. But the adults are never far away and locate them by their contact calls. It is not at all uncommon for owlets to spend time on the ground during this phase and for the adults to swoop down to feed them wherever they are.
Around this time I often get calls from customers saying they have found a chick, seemingly abandoned. Thankfully tawny owls are very good parents and it’s rare that the chicks have actually been abandoned. Instead, more often than not, the owlet is perfectly okay and if it is left where it is its parents will find it. Sometimes an overly daring youngster has had a mishap but you still need to be careful about moving it. If you come across one, the first thing to do is to make sure you have correctly identified it. If it is a tawny owl it will have grey-brown downy feathers and pink eyelids. If the feathers are white and the eyelids are dark then it is more likely to be a barn owl chick and in this case it isn’t a good idea to leave it where it is. Barn owls tend to feed their young inside the nest so a chick does need to go back in.
If you have a tawny owl and it has been in the same place on the ground for a long time I recommend picking it up and putting it on a nearby branch out of the way of predators. Tawny chicks are capable of clawing their way back up the sheer side of a tree trunk, so actually in the majority of cases you are best to let them find their own way. Apart from anything else, the parents can be very protective and you may get a very nasty hammering if you go near it. I’ve been knocked off my feet by a protective male before. It was like being hit with a brick. And I was wearing a helmet! So it’s not a bad idea to don goggles and a hat if you’re going to pick one up, just in case!
The time to worry about tawny owl chicks is if they fledge during cold and wet spells. Their soft, downy feathers become waterlogged offering them no insulation and they can get very cold and perish. Also, if their feathers get wet, they can’t fly. Once, two chicks from the sycamore in the valley below my gallery got caught out in several days of rain. They had only just fledged and were soaked to the skin, their feathers stuck fast to their tiny bodies so that there was no way they could fly to safety. The wet owlets were in danger of getting perilously cold so I scooped them up and brought them inside to dry off.
I used my wife’s hairdryer to gently fluff up their feathers. The sun was out by the time I got them back outside so I propped my ladder against the sycamore tree and quickly, before the adult pair could tackle me, popped them back into the nest hole.
The owlets went on to thrive in my garden until September, when the adult pair drove their young out of the area to find their own territory. It gave me plenty of time to photograph them in various poses for future paintings.