DECATUR — Everyone who sees the cute balls of fluff that are baby Eastern screech owls DJ and Scooter at the Illinois Raptor Center says they wish they could have one.
That is, until they find out what they eat.
“Nothing says 'owl dad' like mincing up a mouse in your kitchen at 3 a.m.,” joked Jacques Nuzzo, program director for the center. Owlets have to have meat, but the tiny babies can't eat by pulling meat off the carcass as adults can, so Nuzzo has to skin a dead mouse and cut it up into tiny pieces to feed the babies, using tongs. He takes the owlets home with him at night and feeds them every four hours, and will do so until they're big enough to self-feed.
Nuzzo holds a federal permit to breed the owls in captivity, and their owlets will grow up to help provide wildlife education at centers around the country. The permits are granted only to individuals, not to organizations.
Last year's owlets went to educational programs including the World Center for Birds of Prey, the International Owl Center in Minnesota, and DuPage County Forest Preserve. He gave those babies to the recipients, but raising owlets takes considerable time and expense, and the center will charge enough this year to recover those costs, he said.
With two of the babies born 15 days ago and three more eggs in the incubator that are due to hatch soon, the program is well underway. Parents Scarlet and Wink can't be trusted to let their babies live, Nuzzo said.
“They eat them,” he said.
That isn't common in the wild, but it is among captive screech owls, and no one knows why, he said. Scarlet and Wink were both admitted to the center in 2013 with eye injuries that mean they can't be released back into the wild.
For the first few years Scarlet and Wink were at the center, Nuzzo thought they were both female, and it's not unusual for female birds to lay eggs even if they're not with males. Female birds from chickens to parrots do the same. He found eggs several times, but those eggs always disappeared and he believed a predator might have gotten into the mew and taken them, so he reinforced the mew to keep predators out.
But one day Nuzzo checked on the owls and found brand new babies. By the time he could obtain an incubator and go back, the adults had eaten the young. At that point, he decided he would pull the eggs as soon as he found them the next time.
“I document the growth of these guys every single day,” Nuzzo said. He begins with the eggs, using a contraption he fixed up that allows candling of the eggs — shining a bright light through the egg to allow him to see the baby inside — and photographing its development. Once the owlet hatches, he takes photos daily with the baby next to a ruler. He documents the first time the owlet regurgitates an owl pellet, which is a ball of fur, bone and other indigestible parts of the food. DJ and Scooter just did that for the first time.
By keeping extensive records, if another rehab facility receives an injured owl, he can immediately help them figure out how old it is and whether it's developing properly, which can make care much more efficient. And birds grow fast. An egg hatches 26 to 30 days after being laid. The babies can fly in 30 days and by about 5 months of age, they'll be fully feathered, with no sign of the gray baby down they have now.
“I don't normally name (owlets) because they're not staying here,” Nuzzo said. “But, well, I did. I keep saying I'm not going to get attached.”
Recently, wildlife rehabbers have begun to advise against using wild-born birds in education programs because it causes the birds stress, suggesting that hand-raised birds are better suited, and Nuzzo raises the owlets with that in mind. As they get older, they'll be handled by volunteers at the center, will learn to step up and allow a human to put equipment on them like jesses and leads, and it will be natural and normal for them to be around humans. By the time these babies are sent to their new homes at education centers around the country, they'll be fully trained and conditioned for educational programs.
Owls are wonderful ambassadors for education programs, Nuzzo said, and in the past, in keeping with the International Association of Avian Trainer and Educators' position, the Illinois Raptor Center has purchased hand-reared barn owls and snowy owls for use in its education programs.