It Takes a Village…

by Carl Strang

This year, Mayslake Forest Preserve’s pair of great horned owls decided to use a squirrel nest for their own breeding attempt. In my first sweep of the preserve I did not find the nest, though I did see the male bird on watch, and thought that perhaps the nest was in one of two large tree cavities in that part of the preserve. I generally discount squirrel nests, in part because I never had seen an owl nest on such a platform, and in part because owls prefer something more substantial. A few days later I noticed a suspiciously flattened squirrel nest in that area, and sure enough, there was mom owl in incubation posture.

The supportive array of pine branches apparently made this squirrel nest seem more solid than most.

I informed Mayslake’s superb team of restoration volunteers, knowing they would want to be judicious in their activity around the nest. Some days later one of their leaders, Jacqui Gleason, came into my office with the news that a baby owl was on the ground under the nest.

The baby was small, still without feathers other than down.

We took it to the wildlife hospital that the Forest Preserve District maintains at Willowbrook Forest Preserve. They found the owlet covered with fly eggs but otherwise in good shape. Untended baby animals on the ground usually are doomed, and flies whose own young develop in decaying carcasses are quick to take advantage of a potential food source.

A few days later, after there had been time enough for Willowbrook’s animal care staff to be certain the baby was free of maggots, plans were made to return the baby to the nest. Rose Augustine, Willowbrook’s Wildlife Specialist (responsible for managing animal care and making decisions about return of rehabilitated animals to the wild), brought the bird. Mike Wiseman, Grounds Maintenance Foreman and experienced owl returner, brought his climbing equipment.

As Mike made his climb, the mother owl peered over the edge of the nest.

She flushed when he was just a short distance below. The rest of us watched out, in case she was one of the few individuals that will attack a person at their nest. Mike found a second baby in the nest and lowered it in a bucket. Rose sent up a wooden platform specially built to provide a solid foundation for a great horned owl nest. Mike set the platform in place, nailed it to the tree, and returned the nest which he temporarily had set off to the side. In the nest was a cottontail rabbit carcass, the baby owls’ meal. Last, the owlets were returned to the nest.

Mike holds one of the babies to give us a final view.

Rose and Mike headed off to return another great horned owl nestling to its home in Bolingbrook. Since that day the parent owls have continued to care for their young, but they have been understandably nervous about the uninvited home invasion and makeover. Also, the growing young no longer need to be brooded full time.

Mother owl on the remodeled nest.

As this story has shown, a number of people were involved in the rescue and restoration of this owlet. If this nest is successful, the fledged youngsters will be the first these parents have produced in 4 years. The difficulty of raising young owls is why great horneds live as long as they do. And here is the part you can play. If you know of a nest location, do the birds the courtesy of watching from a distance. If you find a baby that needs rescuing, call Willowbrook before touching it to get the best advice. Their number is 630-942-6200. (Note: this was cross-posted as a Nature Note in the Observe Your Preserve website).


  1. Amy said,

    April 18, 2012 at 10:46 am

    Neat story, but the line, “Untended baby animals on the ground usually are doomed” is false information! Untended baby animals alone on the ground usually are FINE, and interference by humans often causes much death and disruption. For example, many baby birds leave the nest before they can fully fly, but these fledglings are still being cared for by the parents and should NOT be “rescued” by well-meaning humans (unless they are being menanced by a cat, are out in traffic, or something along those lines). Some mammals, like Cottontail Rabbits and White-tailed Deer, will leave their young in a safe nest while they are out foraging. They will return to their young later, when the humans have left the area. It is important to remember that wild animals are WILD and usually are best left alone. Wild animals make much better parents to their offspring than people do! When in doubt, leave the baby animal alone and contact a professional for advice before attempting a “rescue”. Obviously, this owlet was too young to be out of the nest and would have died without intervention, but I believe that many more wild animals are “rescued” needlessly than those that actually need rescue, and the sad truth is that many of these young animals end up dying.

    • natureinquiries said,

      April 19, 2012 at 5:53 am

      Hi, Amy,
      Everything you say is true, with one exception. That exception is your first sentence. What I said was correct, and all the examples you gave supported it. The baby cottontails, fledglings, fawns etc. that you wrote about all were being tended. As you point out, though, it does take some knowledge and experience to know when intervention is appropriate. I encourage readers to find if there is a licensed rehabilitator in their area, to keep their contact information handy, and to call for advice before making a potentially harmful intervention.

      • Amy said,

        April 25, 2012 at 11:10 am

        Yes, it is hard to tell when a baby animal is truely “untended” or not. When I read your sentence, “Untended baby animals on the ground usually are doomed”, I understood it as “untended at that moment in time”, and probably some of your other readers will understand the sentence in that way as well. That’s a pretty huge misinterpretation from what you actually meant – maybe you could make it more clear in your story that untended at the moment does not always mean abandoned, and that it is actually quite common for wild baby animals to be untended at the moment and yet perfectly fine and cared for by their parents.

  2. May 2, 2012 at 6:09 am

    […] I have kept an eye on the great horned owl nest. Over the past three weeks only one owlet has been visible. In this first photo the baby clearly is […]

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