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Dianna Ricky06

Photo by Dianna Ricky

Good morning fellow bird lovers.  This diary will be a bit different from most Dawn Chorus diaries, but I hope you will enjoy it nevertheless.  To do the title "Dawn Chorus" justice, I will start out with a sound you might hear just about anywhere in the US at dawn.

Unlike most of you, my own bird experience is based on hands-on work with wild birds I rehabilitated between 1991 and 2009. I crashed into this during a 1991 El Nino warm-water event when thousands of our local seabirds were starving, and our local wildlife care network had run out of housing for them. They had heard that my husband and I had a large empty aviary, and one hour after they called us, we looked into the eyes of our first patient, a very sick Brown pelican (at that time endangered).  I had not planned on such a dramatic life-change, and will tell that story another time.  Neither one of us had worked with birds before.

From then on, birds that I never knew existed, began arriving at my doorstep, and Jim and I began a journey that both of us cherished until Jim died in 2006 of a heart attck.  He was the love of my life, husband of 30 years, and father of our two beautiful sons. He also was a full partner in this endeavor.  We were both self-employed and working from our home.

By the time I retired from rehab in 2009, about 3,000 birds had gone through our hands.  90% of them seabirds or raptors. The release rate was around 50%.  

In 2000 Jim and I started the wildlife education “Eyes in the Sky” with the Santa Barbara Audubon Society.

The motivation to do so came from the patients we had cared for.  Each one kept living on in our hearts, urging us to be a voice for them.  After seeing so much unnecessary tragedy and death, a wildlife education program seemed like the best way to help.

"Eyes in the Sky" currently has seven bird of prey that serve as “species ambassadors”.  All can no longer survive in the wild, and all but one are here because of conflicts with human activities.  

Max, our Great horned owl was our first education bird, and he has been my greatest teacher over the last 14 years.  We acquired him back in August 1998, at six months of age.  

Young Max - on Bowperch02

Here he is on the day of his arrival (the picture quality is poor - digital cameras were very primitive in 1998.)

Max is “imprinted”.  That means he is physically perfect, knows how to fly and hunt, and still has all of his wild instincts, but cannot be released because he identifies with the wrong species – humans.  

Unlike in most other cases, his imprinting was completely unintentional.  The person that found him on the ground in Ventura County did all the right things: he looked for the nest to see if he could be placed back, and when he couldn’t locate the nest, he took him to the nearest wildlife rehabilitation center.

But even with the best circumstances and intentions, things still can go wrong.  Max was the first orphaned Great horned owlet brought to the center that year - and there were no owls to place him with without endangering his life.  

Lacking exposure to his own species during the critical first weeks of his life, he began to identify with his human caretakers, by making little begging sounds whenever he heard or saw a human.  

When he was eventually placed with several newly orphaned but older owlets, there was much hope that Max would learn to re-identify with his own kind.  But he never showed any such inclination.  He completely ignored them, and continued to beg for food and attention whenever a human was within earshot or eyesight.  By the age of 6 months, all (including Max) had learned to fly and hunt live prey and were ready for release.  Max, on the other hand, was still begging for food, and had also developed the bad habit of flying on people’s heads.  His imprinting was permanent, and he was not a good candidate for release.

Working with wildlife in rehab and working with permanently captive wildlife require two completely different sets of skills: in rehab you try to keep the bird as wild as possible and work hard NOT to have them “like” you.  In captivity it’s the opposite – you must earn their trust.  I did have the advantage of being very familiar with birds’ body language by then, but still, there was much uncharted territory I had to cover, starting from scratch.  I had no idea what kinds of behaviors I could expect from an imprinted owl.

Max's days, after his arrival, were spent in a large aviary, mostly sleeping, but at night we always brought him into our house.  Jim and I never could stand the thought of birds staying in their aviaries 24/7.  We could not allow him fly outdoors, because a wild pair of Great horned owls in our neighborhood discovered him in THEIR territory, and began dive-bombing his aviary as soon as they discovered him.  He's no match against a wild pair of GHOs.  So our house provided him with more space for learning fancier flight maneuvers than his aviary space did.


We always brought Max in wearing a thick glove (for obvious reasons), and soon we found him sitting on that glove, his way of letting us know he was ready to come in.

Life with Max was great for the first few months.  We provided him with stuffed toys to catch in mid-air flight, and then tear apart, and never got tired of watching his increasingly sophisticated flight maneuvers that included taking off, from the floor, landing straight up on a 7 foot tall shelf in a 30" narrow hallway.


Our first Christmas with Max.  The top of our entertainment center had already become his favorite hangout.

When November came, things began to deteriorate for a while.  Max had started to hoot all night long, every night.  Jim wasn't bothered - he had a 40% hearing loss.  I, on the other hand, had lots of trouble falling asleep.  But I hung in there long enough to get used to it, the same way people living near airports get used to planes taking off and landing.

Late one night, while asleep, Max landed on my shoulder, and began vigorously hooting directly into my ear.  This continued, several times each night.  My tolerance was really getting tested, as sleep was getting hard to come by.  He clearly wanted something.

After some contemplation, I thought he might want someone to “talk” with, and so I attempted my first Great horned owl hoot - a pretty lousy imitation, but Max recognized it immediately, and, from then on, when I hooted back, would stop hooting for two or three hours at a time.  When he would hoot, I would hoot back.  He'd stop again, and I'd go back to sleep, and so on.  He had also stopped landing on my shoulder hooting into my ear, and so I got used to our new routine.

However, one night he landed on my shoulder again, but this time there was no hooting - just silence.  My curiosity was perked, so I slowly opened my eyes, and there he was, with a dead mouse hanging from his beak, just inches away from my face.  “Oh my…”,  I thought, just as Max lowered his head and began trying to feed it to me.  

I wasn’t very hungry, especially for a dead mouse, but since it was a gift from such a beautiful bird, I took it from him.  I politely pretended to nibble on it a little, and  offered it back to him.  He accepted it and ate it.

From there on our nights consisted of me returning a hoot every two to three hours, and accepting/offering back one to three mice per night.


Max is getting ready to deliver a mouse to me (the lump on the right side is part of me).

I still had no idea what was happening.

Birds like to perch up high, and the highest point inside our house is a large entertainment center (about 7 feet tall and 10 feet wide).  Max spent a lot of time up there, so I had lined the top with newspaper to prevent poop damage.  Our bed is very close to that entertainment center.

One night I was in bed reading a book, when I noticed that Max had been staring down on me from the entertainment center for quite some time.  I offered my obligatory hoot (I had gotten much better at it), and Max immediately responded with a new sound I didn't recognize.  It’s very hard to describe, but I found it on the web.  

While making the sound, he was also turning around in circles, shredding the newspaper underneath his talons.  Every now an then he would stop and stare at me again, as if asking “well…?”

What was he was expecting?  I thought and thought, and then, finally, came the much-awaited light bulb moment.  “Could it be….No…No way…that’s too crazy.”  I tried to think of alternative possibilities, but the original thoughts kept creeping back:  “He’s making a NEST, and wants me to come up and check it out!  OMG, he thinks I’m his “wife!”

Suddenly everything fell into place.  The non-stop hooting had been to secure his mate.  Since I had accepted him into my territory, and was the local female, that meant ME.  When I eventually hooted back, he interpreted this as meaning, “She said YES!”   Then he followed up with the mouse deliveries - trying to prove  that that he would be a great provider for me and our chicks. Following that, he located and "prepared" a nest for us and waited for my approval.

Well, how on earth could I have known all that stuff?  They don’t teach this in schools, and the internet wasn’t nearly as developed back then.  To confirm my suspicions, I researched Great horned owls' mating and nesting behaviors in depth, and, sure enough, the whole sequence fit in perfectly with "normal" (wild) Great horned owls' annual mating and nesting cycles.

On a side note - Great horned owls don’t build their own nests. They use nests of other birds such as Red-tailed hawk or other large bird nests, large tree cavities or small caves in hillsides.  If none of these are available, they will make do with a rock ledge, and scrape out an indentation with their talons to prevent the eggs from rolling off.  The circular shredding of the newspaper with his talons resembles that activity.

I did approve the nest by using a stepladder and enhancing the bowl shape of the torn newspaper pieces.


Here he is settled in our 2008 nest.  By then I helped with the annual nest preparation by pre-shredding newspapers and helping him arrange it .

Ellwood school, 2-16 024

During one season, he tried to make that nest right on my bed , but eventually gave up and went back to the entertainment center, after daily bed-making undid all he had done

A new questions popped up in my head, "What's next? What about the mating part? "

I didn’t have to wait very long to find out:  Head and shoulders - and not the shampoo kind.

Sorry, but I have no pictures of that.

That has become my most dreaded part of our annual cycle (Great horned owls mate for life), as between early December and Late February my scalp and shoulders bear multiple scratches.  A thick wool hat and sweatshirt definitely help, but I've often been tempted to put some fluffy dog booties over his talons. Fortunately the whole thing only lasts a few seconds - but the frequency can be very annoying.  His mating cycle also appears to be longer than that of wild Great horned owls, because I never lay any eggs, so he keeps on trying.  

I’m sure that by now some of you really think I’m crazy, and I can understand that.  But one of the responsibilities of keeping captive wild birds is to provide them with the highest quality of life possible.  They completely depend on us for every aspect of their lives.  I take this responsibility very seriously, and I feel quite privileged to be allowed into the personal life of a Great horned owl at such a level.  But I DO have a line I will not cross: I refuse to climb up on top the 7 foot tall entertainment center, lay eggs, and incubate them for 30 days, eating only mice.

In February of 1999, Max continued to educate and amaze me, when a new young owlet arrived at the rehab center Max had grown up at.  And again, there were no other owls to place it with.  The center's director and I decided that perhaps we should try to place it with Max.  Both of us were unsure as to how he would react, so we put the little owlet inside a safe animal carrier that allowed the owlet to see Max, but also kept it safe from any unexpected surprises.

When we placed the carrier into Max's aviary, the little owlet immediately began begging Max, just as Max had begged his human caretakers.  At first it looked that it wasn't a go.  Max frantically started flying around his aviary and showed major distress by panting, flattened ear tufts, landing hard on his perches, and flying back and forth.

I was just about ready to give up and remove the baby in its carrier, when all of a sudden Max flew to his food dish, picked one of his (dead) mice, flew over to the carrier, and tried to push a mouse through the wire door.

I was stunned, but I still didn't trust him, worrying that if I opened the door and the chick moved, he might think she was food.  So I fed the chick one of his mice, while Max was watching, then put her back inside her carrier, and left them both out for the night.

All night I listened from my house, hearing the baby begging, and Max jumping around in his aviary.  Jim and I went to check on them in the  morning, and found 4 mice piled up against the wire door of the chick's carrier.  Max had been trying to feed the chick all night long.

When we finally opened the carrier door, with our hearts pounding, Max immediately flew over, picked up one of the 4 mice, fed it to the owlet, and became the  foster-parent to the first of 76 orphaned Great horned owl chicks he has raised since then, and I am happy I've been able to help him It fulfill one of his instincts - to raise future generations of his amazing species.

Here is a video of Max and his babies.

This video was made several years ago, and needs updating  but my work load is heavy, and finding funding is an ongoing challenge.  Our program recently expanded from my home to a public facility, and I haven't been able to find much time for such details.  If you would like to help and donate to Eyes in the Sky, please go here (at bottom right of page).

Max-Headshots22 with eye adjust

Head shot of Max, with image of Jim (the photographer) in Max's eye.

Originally posted to Tyto Alba on Sun Aug 26, 2012 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech, Birds and Birdwatching, and J Town.

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