Identifying A Baby Owl
Baby Owl ID
I sometimes get called to help with the rescue of injured owls and birds of prey. Many times it's a case of a baby owl or hawk that is on the ground and perfectly fine. When babies are "branching" or stretching their wings, flapping, and learning to fly, they can fall from trees. The parents are watching and continuing to feed the baby owl or hawk, but you usually don't see them, and often (if given time) the fledgling is perfectly capable of climbing back to the nest or into a tree. It's when concerned people see them, and want to intervene, when owl-napping occurs. To that end, I wanted provide a quick guide to what baby owls look like, and their adult form, so that you can recognize them and talk about them to a wildlife officer or helper. If you are concerned then please call a wildlife rehabilitator right away. DON'T WAIT FOR HOURS OR DAYS to call for assistance!! I've gone to more than one house where people "watched" the injured or baby owl for two days, and then it died right when we got there. Tragically we could have offered it help if we'd been called sooner. Don't be an owl-napper, but if you're concerned then make sure the scene is safe for the baby, take a picture, and call for help.
If you do find a baby bird (other than a baby owl) here's a great poster that gives you advice for how to construct a "nest" in a tree for the fledgling. However, don't try this with baby owls. They have feet that are the size (and strength) of the adults, and if you pick one up, Junior's first response is not to use its beak, but its feet. Those poopy daggers of death will hurt you, just remember they've been in a nest with bird poop, dead birds, rodent bits, and more! Let a licensed rehabilitator help you, and help with re-nesting if it's called for. If you get taloned, it's a direct-trip to the hospital!
When you ID a baby owl, keep in mind that size is relative to how old it is, when it hatched, and if it's the "runt" of the litter. In some cases the older chicks may "eject" the younger right out of the nest. For this post I can give you relative sizes, but know that it's not absolute.
All baby owls start out fluffy and downy, and grow feathers as they age. The more "adult-like" feathers you see, the older the chick. Let's start with the largest baby owl you may encounter.
GREAT HORNED OWL (Bubo virginianus)
Great horned owls (GHOs) are just that, "great-big" owls. As babies they can be as small as a baby chicken, the size of a frier chicken, and they and can grow up to 25" in length. The young start branching around 5 weeks of age and fly around 9-10 weeks. If you find a downy chick you won't see the characteristic "horns" of an adult (by the way they're not horns, they're just nifty looking tufts of feathers that let you know an owl's mood, like a cat's ears) Fun party fact those tufts are called plumicorns (like unicorns with plumage). If you find an older chick, partly fuzzy and partly feathered, then you may start to see their "horns." Don't be fooled though, if they are scared the feathers may be laying down on their heads.
I like to describe baby GHO's as the grey stuffing of a feather pillow turned inside out, given a furrowed brow like grandpa, yellow eyes with too much mascara, and a two black ear commas around their face. The babies, if they are moderately feathered may also try to look bold and threatening by being poofed-up and all "big-bad-bird" at you too (see picture above), holding their wings out and hissing. It's all a big show, but pretty scary stuff. Notice there is some barring on the bird's feathers too, usually with darker tips to the feathers.
If you find a baby great horned owl on the ground then observe it for a short time, and then call for advice. Take a picture to send the rehabilitator just in case. Remember though, adults will continue feeding the babies even on the ground, and for several months after the babies fledge from their nests.
BARRED OWL (Strix varia)
Barred owls are the next largest owl you'll find. As chicks they look very similar to great horned owls, but with a bit less attitude, and more rounded heads. No plumicorns here (I really just wanted to use plimicorn again). Their eyes are also black, and not yellow like the great horned owl. The great horned owl chick has a black beak, and barred owl chicks have a white beak. Overall, I think they look like wide-eyed q-tips with worried expressions. They hatch the size of baby chicks and grow up to 16-20". As their feathers come in they have a distinct brown barring and white mottling. Feather tips tend to be white.
Barred owls are what most people call "hoot owls" but it's really not a good label since all owls can hoot. You can read more about barred owls on the Audubon web page.
If you ever find baby barn owls you'll know it. They screech and hiss like something out of a horror movie. Their legs are long and they look like something only a mother could love. (Really--they're NOT cute.) There are no cuddly, fuzzy plimicorns here. These are the third smallest owls, and they are often found around barns, abandoned buildings, and human structures. The baby owl has beady button eyes, a long beak, and a heart shaped face. The really young ones are floofy-floofy white, and when their feathers grow in they are buffy cream and light brown colored. In the awkward between stage they may have tufts of floof with their feathers coming in.
There is nothing else that looks quite like a baby barn owl chick. To read more about barn owls check out the Cornell website.
EASTERN SCREECH OWL
Eastern screech owls are the ones that everyone thinks should fit in your pocket. Good luck with that! They have GHO attitude packed into a wee body. I have gotten rescue calls for screech owls where people thought that the grown adults were just baby owls of another species. The adults are a mere 6-10" long, and they do sport the cute plumicorns that great horned owls have too. Screechies come in two different color phases, grey morph and red morph (makes them sound like power-ranger owls). Here in the Eastern US we find them both fairly commonly, and almost exclusively nesting and roosting in trees. Their call is an eerie sounding horse whinny. It's easy to see why you might think that and adult screech can be confused with a baby GHO, they both have the plumicorns and yellow eyes too. the biggest distinction (aside from the red morph), is that they don't have the same buffy colored face mask, they lack the black rings marking around the face, and they are more uniformly colored across their whole body.
This video has some great footage of the classic screechie blink. It's weirdly mesmerizing.
The picture above is from the Cincinnati zoo, you can symbolically adopt one on their web page. the babies, grey and red morph, both look grey. This grey is a great camouflage. The younger the sceech, the harder it is to see their plumicorns. They do get them though, which makes them look like mini GHOs. They're little birds, but they are mighty. To learn more you can visit the Cornell Bird's Website.
If you find a baby owl, then don't try to approach it right away (unless it's in danger). Call a local rehabilitator for help and step-by-step assistance. Don't wait, and don't be an owl-napper. There's a fine balance between helping and harming. If a baby owl is on the ground, it may not be hurt, it's probably still being fed by the parents and is perfectly fine. Butk Just in case and just to make sure, call for advice though. PLEASE DO NOT take it in, try to care for it, or try to adopt it. Owls are wild, they make horrible pets that will eventually attack you, and it is illegal, under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, to possess them, their feathers, or nests.