Identifying the owl
When you find a young owl, it is very important to identify the species. The correct course of action to take depends entirely on which species of owl you are dealing with. Please compare the owl you’ve found to the photographs below.
Please see Owlet identification and ageing for full details.
The rest of this page contains information which must only be used when dealing with nestling or fledgling Tawny Owls. If the eyelid edges are black/brown and not vivid pink you have a young Barn Owl and you need to look at what to do if you find a young Barn Owl.
A quick guide to finding young Tawny Owls:
- In almost all cases, by far the best thing is to leave a Tawny owlet where it was found.
- (Or take it back there – It is very important to remember or find out exactly where the owlet was picked up.)
- Unless there is something definitely wrong with the owlet, it is far better off remaining ‘in the wild’.
- It is not the best thing for an owlet to be hand reared and released later.
- It is perfectly natural for part-grown Tawny Owls to be out of the nest before they can fly.
- Adult Tawny Owls will feed their young wherever they are – even on the ground.
- An owlet will not be rejected by its parents because it’s been handled by humans – they have very little sense of smell.
- You must not keep the owl overnight unless absolutely necessary. If it’s not starving or injured, it must be returned to the wild the same day and before dusk.
- Checking the owlet over to make sure it is not starving or injured is obviously a good idea.
Healthy young Tawny Owls
It is important to note that young Tawny Owls usually leave the nest long before they are ready to fly and there is actually no point in placing such birds back in the nest. From approx. ½ to ¾ grown (around 120-220mm tall), Tawny owlets go through a phase called ‘branching’, when they walk, climb, jump and flutter around in the trees at night. The adults locate them by their contact calls and will feed them anywhere. It is not at all uncommon for owlets to spend time on the ground during this phase and they are surprisingly good at climbing back up again. It is very likely that the owlet you have is perfectly okay and if it is left where it is, or returned to the same spot, it will be fed by the adults and will be able to climb to safety.
Owlets on the ground sometimes fall victim to natural predation and are also vulnerable to dogs. As a result, you should consider picking the owlet up and placing it somewhere off the ground, on a shrub, or low branch for instance. If there is no obvious place to put it (an owlet found at the bottom of a large tree, for example), you may wish to create a safe place. A wooden crate or wicker basket can be attached to the tree trunk with a nail or strap, and the owlet placed inside. If you take this course of action, please bear the following in mind:
- Remember that the adults’ territory is fairly small, perhaps only 25 acres, so it must be returned to the same spot or very close by. If you inadvertently place it outside its parents’ territory it is much less likely to be fed.
- The owlet needs to be able to climb out – avoid deep, smooth-sided containers such as buckets. A healthy owlet can climb the vertical side of a tree trunk but this is obviously easier if the bark is rough so a rough-barked tree is preferable.
- Don’t worry about providing shelter unless the weather is extreme. The owlet needs to be heard and seen by its parents.
- Ensure that there is adequate drainage. If it rains, will the container fill with water?
- In a public area try to place the box/basket out of sight. If unwanted human attention is a real threat, consider using a ladder so you can fix it higher up.
A small proportion of grounded owlets are found to be injured or starved, however the vast majority of the owlets picked up by people are healthy and should be left alone or returned to where they were found by dusk of the same day. It is worth bearing in mind that not all owlets survive and that mortality is often due to natural causes.
How to check the condition of a young Tawny Owl
If you are in any doubt as to whether the owlet you have found is fit and healthy, you should attempt to check it over. The following is a brief guide only. A more detailed guide to checking the condition of a young owl can be found elsewhere on this site. Please consider the following, before you get started:
- A smaller owlet can be checked single-handed, but if it’s bigger than a man’s fist you should consider getting a helper to hold its feet.
- Although an owlet’s beak looks quite powerful, a peck is unlikely to cause much damage.
- An owl’s feet can clench powerfully and the talons are sharp so you should keep the feet pointing away from you and avoid contact with bare skin.
- You and any helper should wear thin leather gloves unless the owlet is exceptionally frisky or large in which case more substantial leather gloves may be needed.
Where was the owl when it was found? If it was tucked in beside something like a rock or a tree trunk, only superficially wet, with half a mouse next to it, it’s probably fine! If it was completely exposed and soaked to the skin it’s less likely to be OK. What position was the owl in when it was found and what’s its position now? If it’s standing, crouching, or lying on its front with its feet tucked neatly underneath, it’s probably fine. Lying on its side or back is not a good sign, unless you have just put it down, in which case it should right itself shortly. If the owlet is alert and makes a bill-snapping sound this is a good sign. An owlet that plays dead may be perfectly OK or not. If the owlet does a large watery dropping this suggests it has eaten recently which is a good sign. If you have kept it in a box for a while and find it has produced a pellet this is also a good sign.
Lay the owlet on its back, on the palm of one hand, with its feet pointing away from you, the back of its head resting on your wrist, and its legs and wing tips encircled by your thumb and index finger. Do this firmly but gently, so the owlet cannot escape by wriggling, or hurt you with its feet. With your other hand, move your fingertips slowly and lightly onto its chest and feel its breastbone (the raised bony ridge running down the middle). Either side of the breastbone, feel the flesh (wing muscles). How far does the breastbone stick up above the muscles on either side? A few millimetres is normal, more than 5-6 mm suggests that the owl has been underfed for a significant period. Run the tips of your fingers right down the breastbone and lightly onto the stomach. Does it feel like an empty hollow of loose skin or can you feel a solid lump? Does the owl’s skin feel warm or cold? Still with the owlet on its back and using your free hand, spread the wings alternately comparing their appearance and movement, gently move each leg in turn (be aware of the feet) and compare. It’s normal for small owlets to have slightly blue-looking eyes whereas larger owlets have large dark eyes. At all stages both eyes should look identical.
What to do next
If the breastbone is only slightly protruding, something can be felt in the stomach, the wings both retract in the same way, the legs both move OK, the eyes look the same, and there’s no obvious injury then the owl is almost certainly fine and should be returned to the wild as soon as possible. If one of the wings, legs, or eyes is definitely not the same as the other then the owl needs to be checked over by a vet or experienced wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. If the stomach is empty and the breastbone very protrusive, the owl needs feeding. Borderline cases may be able to be returned to where they were found and food items placed with them. Severely emaciated owlets may need to be tube fed by an experienced person and then hand fed for a period before release. It is an offence to keep a wild bird unless your sole intention is to return it to the wild and it is an offence to do anything that results in the bird being un-releasable. You must not keep and hand rear a single wild owlet otherwise it will become too tame to be released and you will have broken the law. Owlets that cannot be returned to the wild quickly should be passed to an experienced rehabilitator. If you are in any doubt about the owl’s condition or your ability to care for it, please take advice from a vet or experienced rehabilitator.
Owlets which are kept away from the nest area for more than 24 hours may still be taken back but the chances of them being fed by the adults will be reduced, especially if there are no other surviving young. Once the adults’ pattern of owlet-feeding behaviour has been broken, it is unlikely to resume. Owlets that for some reason are not returned quickly to the nest area should be passed to an experienced rehabilitator so they can be reared in the company of other young Tawny Owls and released, in accordance with good practice. This is not a preferred option – getting owlets back to their natal area the same day is much better.
Monitoring the owlet
The next day you may wish to return. If the owlet is still there you can pick it up and check it over again. In most cases the owlet will have vanished, which is fine. Sometimes it is still present but a wild-caught food item is with it or a pellet has been cast. Occasionally it is found on the ground again in which case after being checked over, it can be returned to the temporary box. As long as the owlet is not in a life-threatening condition, you must leave it in the wild, but by all means hand feed it if necessary and leave additional food items with it in the temporary box/basket. When it is all over don’t forget to take the box down and pull any nails out of the tree.
Feeding the owlet
- If the owl has a solid mass in its stomach, don’t try feeding it.
- If its stomach feels empty but it has plenty of breast muscle, or has produced a pellet or a big watery black and/or white dropping don’t worry too much about feeding it.
- If its stomach is empty and it’s a bit thin on the chest and shows no sign of having eaten recently or produces a small greenish dropping, you should consider feeding it.
- In emergencies it’s OK to use raw poultry meat or raw lean beef, but not lamb or pork.
- Do not give pure lean meat without roughage, such as fur or feathers, for more than two days at a time and never give bone without roughage.
- Never use cooked meat, canned pet food, or any non-meat food, unless prescribed by a vet.
The ideal food is dead mice or poultry chicks, available frozen from pet shops, and thoroughly defrosted before use. A typical owlet should consume 2-3 day-old chicks or 4-5 mice per 24 hours. An owlet is unlikely to recognise white mice or yellow chicks as food straight away, whereas grey-brown food items may be readily eaten. Unnaturally coloured food items should be cut up (scissors are often best) and placed on a piece of wood in the box close to the owlet, half-matchbox sized pieces are OK. Although owlets can swallow surprisingly large items whole, the inexperienced carer should only place small items in the bill (thumbnail-sized pieces are OK for this) and wait patiently for the owlet to swallow rather than try and push the food down. Once a few bits have been swallowed the owlet should be left in peace and may well start to pick up and swallow the larger food pieces by itself. Please see feeding owls for more detailed information.
Getting help and advice
If you need further information or advice, please contact a local vet or rehabilitator, or the Barn Owl Trust. The RSPCA may be able to take birds that are injured or emaciated (0300 1234 999 – 24 hour service).