This week sees us celebrate International Owl Awareness Day this coming Sunday. We will be holding a Meet a Keeper Owl special as well as having a guided Owl Tour in the afternoon where you can follow a keeper around in the afternoon as they feed the owls.
We currently house 6 species of owl (7 if you include Chris’ pet Barn Owl). These are the European Eagle Owl, Snowy Owl, Spectacled Owl, Chaco Owl, Southern White Faced Owl & Burrowing Owl – 15 birds in total
We have also kept several other species in the past including Great Grey & Northern Hawk, as well as having wild Tawny, Barn & Little Owl in and around the park & Short Eared Owl within 5 miles distance.
In terms of managing our owls the main concerns are feeding and breeding, plus health care where necessary.
All owls are predatory so the diet is largely made up of day old chick, rats and mice. The owls are fed once a day, usually in mid to late afternoon as many of our species are nocturnal and there is no point in putting food out first thing if its not going to be eaten. Also, it’s surprising how many people will comment saying how beautiful the owls are as you enter to feed then comment how disgusting it is that we feed them animals (no such thing as a veggie owl as yet!)
Any left over food is removed the following morning so as not to attract flies and also so the keepers can monitor how much is being consumed. The larger owls will get 5-7 chicks per day, alternated with single rat, whilst the smaller birds get 2 chicks each per day. The smallest of our owls, the Burrowing, are also offered occasional live food in the shape of locust, cricket & mealworm as insects make up a large part of their wild diet. Our birds do retain natural hunting instinct as we have found half eaten mole in more than one enclosure!
Where food goes in it most come out and in owls this can be in two forms, droppings and pellets. Pellets are the compressed remains of the prey that the owl cannot digest (bones, fur, teeth) which the owl will bring back up. The keepers, who all have owls on their sections, have to maintain cleanliness in their aviaries scrubbing droppings, raking up pellets and cleaning the ponds. They also have to maintain the aviaries to ensure they are damage free. For mot species this is no problem but as the Snowy Owl aviary is netted we pay particular attention here as any tear in the net could lead to escape, as was the case in the snow of 2007 when our female ‘Lucky’ escaped when the weight of snow caved the roof in – she was recaptured after 3 weeks!
Keepers also have to manage the breeding of our owl species. Many of the species that we keep are common in captivity with no breeding programmes. In fact some species are so successful in captivity they are over breed and the zoo population is flooded with youngsters. A trip to one zoo a couple of years ago resulted in seeing at least 6 aviaries with one species of owl. As a result of this we keep a pair of male Eagle & Spectacled Owls.
The Southern White Faced Owls are offered a box when we know we have someone who will take any chicks produce. They are tree hollow nesters in the wild and our pair are excellent breeders, producing several chicks over the years including Cariad & Leia, two of our Meet a Keeper team. They are so good we have even tried them incubating Burrowing Owl eggs for us as the current pair of Burrowing aren’t particularly successful. Although they incubated, the eggs were infertile so no joy.
Burrowing Owls live up to their name in the fact that the nest underground. We offer a box with a long entrance pipe which is partially hidden underground. They can lay many eggs (21 have been recorded in the wild!) A new male has recently been brought in and as this years eggs have proven infertile again so far, he will replace the current male next year.
The Snowy Owls lay their eggs on the ground in a shallow scrape. In the wilds of the Arctic Tundra trees are not an option so they must make do on the ground. Our current pair of Snowys have produced eggs for the past 2 years but the eggs have been abandoned overnight and chilled, last year we put down to the Jubilee fireworks spooking her off the nest. We were able to rescue one egg which was hand reared and went to a private collector. This year she just stopped sitting overnight and the eggs had died off by the morning.
If we were to pair a male Eagle owl with a female then they would nest on a ledge, or build a small platform of twigs, whilst the Spectacled & Chaco would find tree hollows.
Owls lay between 3-5 eggs on average with the females doing the incubation whilst the male supplies food. Females are slightly larger as they are the last line of defence. Egg incubation will start from the first egg being laid so that means that the chicks hatch staggered. If, in the wild, food is plentiful then most chicks will survive. If food is limited then unfortunately the younger chicks usually become food for the older siblings.
Over the past couple of years we have hand reared a number of owls. This is so we can train them for use in our displays. Owls are generally lazy and will fly for food, but only if they are hungry. Jesses are placed on the birds legs just for a bit of control when on the glove. These are light weight and do not impede flying but gives us a bit of control when we allow the public to handle to owls.
Before flying, the owls are weighed. If they are above their optimum flying weight then it is unlikely they will fly as they are full. Below that weight and they may be easily distracted by butterflies, small birds etc and fly the wrong way. The owls are trained to sit on a glove (to protect hands from sharp talons) and to fly from point A to point B. When the bird has flown as it should it is rewarded with food.
You are able to see this most days at the Meet the Keeper talk at 12.15 as Helen is busy with her young female Chaco Owl which we discovered recently is a female.
In other news this week:
The first of our African Spoonbill eggs hatched yesterday, with the second on its way. We are hand rearing the chicks as the female, as reported a couple of weeks ago, has been unwell and left the nest. We have been in contact with the studbook keeper for this species for guidelines on how to rear this difficult species. It’s basically going to be a delicious diet of blended fish, egg yolk, flamingo pellet, vitamins, calcium & water 5 times a day. Fingers crossed things go well as they are notoriously tricky and at our last attempt we go to 15 days before losing the chick
We’ve also had a Zebra Finch chick and 2 Standing Day Geckos hatch this week. The Geckos were a nice surprise as 6 eggs were discovered on Tuesday and 4 eggs moved to the incubator, more out of curiosity. The next morning one had hatched and by yesterday we were up to two
We have been slowly introducing the new female Marabou Stork to the male. He has been off show for the past week while she explores the enclosure. On Tuesday they were given 20 minutes together under strict supervision. There was a little clashing of beaks otherwise they gave each other wide berths. This is going to be a long process and we will build up their time together & even when they look settled we will still split them over night as they have the potential to kill each other.
Humboldt penguin Molly has finished her moult, Arthur is mid way with Ron & Hagrid starting. The rest aren’t far behind.
We’ve removed the 2 King Penguin eggs from the incubator as both were no good
The pair of Roul Roul Partridge in the old Toucan House have 6 eggs whilst the pair in the Discovery Zone have produced 4
The 2 Grey Peacock Pheasant eggs look good and were featured in the local press this week
Our Southern Lapwings built then destroyed a nest scrape
The various chicks we are hand rearing are doing well. The Northern Helmeted Curassow now has its own outdoor pen and is starting to develop the blue casque on its head and the black feathers of adulthood.
The 2 parrots are continuing to grow with the Amazon nearly fully feathered and Monty the Macaw not far behind. The Amazon chick left with the adults is also doing great
The Kookaburra chick is starting to take food by itself and was seen bashing a mouse the other day, just as it would in the wild. It’s also starting to find its voice.
Thanks as always for reading