by Geoff Giles, president of the Williamsburg Bird Club as well as a Virginia Master Naturalist, Historic Rivers Chapter
Living in my neighborhood is a hoot--more specifically a Barred Owl hoot. An amorous pair has given us salutes to the dawn, the evening hoot, and even what seems to be a call to afternoon high tea from time to time. But lately there has been even more to the story. On 9 May, a neighbor called excitedly and asked me to come over and give him some advice about "something on his back deck" that might need some help. I went expectantly and he led me through his home to look out the kitchen window at the deck. On the railing, just a few feet from the kitchen window, sat a smallish hunched shape with a rounded head, with the unmistakable wing feathers of a barred owl, but little pattern on the breast - still having the owlet's downy feathers it would grow out of. A baby Barred Owl - so that's what all the hooting's about!
My neighbor wanted to know if he should take it in, should feed it something, or if there was someone he should call to have it cared for. Looking over the little fellow, we could not see any signs of injury or distress, and I suggested we let the owlet's parents care for their little one. Since it is not unusual for an owlet to leave the nest before being able to fly, there are many known cases of owls continuing to feed their offspring out of the nest for as long as they needed to be cared for, until they can fly and fend for themselves. We resolved to let the owl parents care for their young one, and noted that he actually had made a fortunate landing on the deck railing, two floors above the ground, where he should be safe from cats and other ground predators. While we talked about him, he occasionally swiveled his head in our direction and appeared to study us with big brown eyes. We had seen his parents, flying and perched, and agreed that this fellow was a chip off the old block of his parents - so we called him Chip.
The next day my neighbor called to say that all seemed to be working well, that Chip's mother had flown in several times and perched beside him on the railing while feeding him. He noted that the mom seemed huge when coming in silently on outstretched wings, compared to her owlet. I told him that owlets normally walk around on a branch near their nest for some time before they are finally able to fly off, and that his deck might afford a safe place for that phase. My neighbor agreed to surrender his deck to Chip's needs until he was ready to move on. It was apparent that the owlet had wormed his way into my neighbors' hearts in a very short time!
Over the next several days, my neighbors watched as Chip first walked about on the railing, then one morning was perched on top of the higher trellis on the deck, and a day later was perched on a horizontal limb about ten feet above the deck. The mother continued to appear several times a day to feed him. In the days that followed, Chip was perched on ever higher branches and when the mother came to feed him, my neighbor noticed that she seemed to occasionally prod him to take off and fly. One morning Chip was gone and his mother did not appear. My neighbors were distressed, concerned that something might have happened to their little visitor. There was no denying that the step-parents of an owlet also experience the "empty nest syndrome".
Interestingly, my son and my chocolate lab seemed to have a 'Chip' sighting a few days later. My son noted two owls perched side by side on a high branch in the wooded lot opposite our house. It seemed to my son that one owl was taking hooting lessons from the other. Fortunately, if it was Chip, he is learning to hoot from his mother, who does a perfect tuneful rendition of the classic barred owl "Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?" My son noted that the second owl seemed to be trying to imitate the first, but was tentative and only getting it partly right but I'm sure we'll be hearing more from Chip in the future!
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