PULLMAN, Wash. - Rarely seen by the public, baby great horned owls are being treated at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, and it’s hard to believe that the nine palm-sized puffballs with curious yellow eyes will grow into fierce raptors of the woods.
The young babies - five from one nest and four from another - are being hand-fed until they are strong enough to eat on their own. The first four were brought to WSU on April 13 at roughly one week old. Just four days later, the second group arrived at only a few days old.
"We’ve had great horned babies before, but in 10 years, I’ve never had any this young,” said veterinarian Nickol Finch, who oversees WSU’s Raptor Rehabilitation Center. "Pretty much all they’re doing is eating and sleeping.”
It’s rare for humans to get a glimpse of baby great horns. Their parents usually nest high up in trees and are aggressive protectors of their young. Considering the owls possess talons powerful enough to cart off animals five times their weight, most people are wise enough to keep their distance.
As for WSU’s nine owlets, the first four survived a fall to the ground near Colton after someone unknowingly cut down a tree where they were nesting, said Finch. The younger ones were brought to a veterinarian in Lewiston and then transported to WSU after their nest was destroyed inside a chimney during a home remodel.
"With no nest to be returned to, babies on the ground are vulnerable,” Finch said. "At this age, they would probably not survive if left on the ground. The parents will still try to protect them and feed them if they are on the ground, but keeping them warm is another story.”
And so, with help from Finch and a flock of devoted WSU students who feed them three times a day, these fuzzy critters - weighing less than an avocado - will one day stand two feet tall and sport a four-foot wingspan.
With their fierce hunting skills, yellow cat-like eyes and tufts resembling pointy ears, how fitting that great horns are nicknamed "winged tigers.” Also consider that, perched atop a tall tree in darkness, they can spot rodents, rabbits and snakes. Additionally, they are one of the few creatures that prey on skunks, according to the website of the Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey, located in Boise, Idaho.
Inside the WSU veterinary hospital’s unit for wildlife and exotic animals, there are no visiting hours for these little patients. And even if there were, no one could speak. Students are instructed not to talk when feeding the owlets their tiny meals of mouse parts soaked in water.
"It’s important that the owls don’t imprint on humans,” said Finch, who hopes to release them into the wild sometime this summer. "The more independent they are, the better,” she said, adding that a human-bonded great horned owl dive-bombing steaks on barbeque grills and perching on kitchen window sills makes for potentially dangerous scenarios.
In the meantime, the little fellas at WSU do their best to act scary when approached by humans, clacking their beaks to produce a sound that resembles two toothpicks being struck together. All the while, they bob and weave on scrawny legs.
Which means that, for now, they’re simply adorable.