By Cheri March
It’s the moment fans of the Ferndale Owl Cam have been waiting for: Eggs have begun to hatch!
Since the webcam was installed above a Barn Owl nest in The Old Steeple, a concert hall on the edge of historic Ferndale Cemetery, the Ferndale Owl Cam has quickly become the most watched bird cam on California’s Redwood Coast - filling a demand for online bird watching created when a pair of Bald Eagles featured on the popular Humboldt Bay Eagle Cam abandoned their nest site two seasons ago.
The Old Steeple’s resident female owl, named “Truman,” laid the first of six eggs on March 25. Barn Owl eggs have an incubation period of 29-35 days, and the first owlet hatched right on schedule on Thursday April 27. A second owlet emerged Friday and a third on Sunday.
After more than a month of anticipation (and not a whole lot of action as Truman sat patiently and dutifully on her eggs) things are starting to get exciting. So what can viewers expect now that the young stars of the Ferndale Owl Cam are making their debuts? Read on for fascinating facts about Barn Owl babies.
Expect a Few More Weeks of Brooding
Baby Barn Owls are born nearly naked, developing a fine layer of down over the first couple weeks before achieving a full coat of fluff. As the down grows in, the mother owl will continue to brood her owlets, keeping them warmed by body heat until the eldest hatchling is around 3 weeks old. But it’s still possible to see the developing babies: The best time to catch a glimpse is when Truman gets up for a quick stretch - or during feeding time, when owlets peek their wobbly little heads out from mama’s feathery chest to receive bits of food.
By week four, the babies are entirely capable of feeding themselves and can be left alone for increasing intervals as mom joins dad to hunt for food. They will soon begin to look a lot more owl-like with emerging feathers and heart-shaped faces. By 6 weeks, Barn Owl babies are sometimes big enough to outweigh their parents by several ounces!
Barn Owl Babies Are Already Capable Carnivores
From the moment the first owlet hatched, Truman’s mate began stepping up his hunting game to provide the family with a constant supply of prey. Sometimes he brings so many rodents that they appear to pile up in the nest. While many birds eat and regurgitate prey to their young, Barn Owls actually get small pieces of fresh meat, shredded by their mother, from the time they are born – and are able to down an entire mouse or shrew as early as 3 weeks of age. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that smaller nestlings struggle to survive as their larger, stronger siblings devour the lion’s share of food.
Six Eggs Won’t Necessary Mean Six Owlets
As mentioned, survival can be challenging for chicks that hatch last. Owl eggs hatch in the order they are laid – typically 2-3 days apart – meaning that the last egg in a clutch of six could hatch two weeks after the first, putting the youngest owlet at enormous disadvantage. Cannibalism of younger siblings has also been reported on many owl cams, a possibility for which we are steeling ourselves. Sometimes, eggs fail to hatch altogether, perhaps because they were never fertilized.
A 16-year study conducted in Utah found that only 63 percent of Barn Owl eggs hatched, and only 87 percent of hatchlings survived to fledging. The number of owlets that survive is also related to the amount of food their parents can catch, which is impacted by weather (it’s tough for owls to hunt in rain), as well as their individual parenting experience. In short, growing up won’t be easy for the Ferndale Owl Cam babies - but we’re hoping for the best.
Baby Owls Communicate Hunger to Parents – and Each Other
Visitors to the Victorian Village should soon be able to hear characteristic food-begging calls coming from the tower of The Old Steeple – a “pshhh!…pshhh!….pshhh!” sound that has been compared to everything from loud snoring to demonic cries. Unlike other owl species, Barn Owls don’t hoot but make a wide variety of screeches, hisses and tongue clicks.
Barn owlets also exhibit a surprisingly altruistic feeding behavior: Siblings will sometimes feed each other rather than themselves, according to a study reported by Audubon. Research suggests that Barn Owl babies communicate hunger levels to one another. Rather than competing over food dropped off by their parents, siblings will take turns, with the most recently satiated owlets stepping aside to let the hungrier, more vocal chicks have the meal.
Owlets Grow Up Fast
By 8-9 weeks, the owlets will be fully feathered and attempting their first short flights, making for excellent bird watching opportunities near the landmark Ferndale Cemetery. By 10 weeks, it can be hard to distinguish the chicks from their parents, but they can often be found huddled together in the nest during the day. They will begin to leave the nest for longer periods by 11-12 weeks, and may be gone for good by 14 weeks.
In mild climates like the Lost Coast and in years when weather is particularly favorable, some Barn Owl pairs will mate and lay another clutch of eggs by mid-summer - occasionally before the first brood has even left the nest!
View Ferndale’s Barn Owls live at FerndaleOwlCam.com or check out photos of the family in Visit Ferndale’ owl cam gallery. Learn about the ecological importance of raptors like owls, and how to protect them, at Raptors Are The Solution.