The Case of the Great Horned Owl Mix Up

May 7, 2012

Nine fluffy owlets recently turned up at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Doctors thought the babies looked like great horned owls. But to their surprise, the owlets turned out to be an even more unusual species. As correspondent Courtney Flatt reports, help poured in from around the country to solve the tiny owls’ identity crisis.

Nine pairs of big, yellow eyes stare up from a cardboard box. You can hear the birds’ noisy chatter growing louder. Inside sit what veterinarians once thought were nine baby great horned owls. But turns out, they were wrong.

After photos and videos of the little feather balls quickly disseminated around the web, two owl experts wrote in to say: Those look a little more like western screech owls. Other ornithologists agreed.

Erickson: “Birders, we can’t help it. We’re among the most anal-retentive people on the planet, and when something is misidentified, we always jump on it. It’s what we do.”

At her home in Duluth, Minnesota, Laura Erickson scrolled through the photos and knew the babies were screech owls. For the past 12 years she’s been living with Archimedes, an eastern screech owl that could not return to the wild.

Back at Washington State University, the baby owls have outgrown their cage. Right now they’re about the size of a baseball. A technician is moving them to a larger space. The owlets do their best to frighten her, sharply clicking their beaks and aggressively squawking.

That feisty behavior was one of the first clues that these babies were probably western screech owls.

Nikol Finch is the head of the school’s exotics and wildlife department. She says western screech owls are extremely uncommon on the Palouse.

Finch: “I’ve never seen great horned owls this young, and I’ve never seen a screech owl even younger then a fledgling – they’ve always been to the point that they were flying on their own. And then to suddenly get nine of them all at once is really, really unusual.”

Finch is keeping the owlets away from humans so they don’t imprint on people. But for now, Finch says:

“They do a lot of eating and a lot of pooping, just like a baby of any other species,” Finch said. “They are getting a lot feistier faster.”

The hospital will release the birds this summer when they can fly.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network