Renesting of great horned owlets can provide alternative nests for years – and friendships among human neighbors

It’s not usual for great horned owlets to leave the nest before they’re ready to fly and in order to safeguard these birds from predators, wildlife rehabilitators will often use laundry baskets or other containers for renesting the little ones – some great horned owls will continue to use these alternative nests for years.

Great horned owls don’t usually build their own nests – they prefer to takeover other nests and a laundry basket, though not as natural looking as a nest made with branches and leaves or in the crook of a tree, the alternative nests can provide a sturdier structure – and one with something similar to crib rails, which help to keep owlets in the nest.

April 2021. Great horned owlet found on ground in Annapolis.
April 2022. Great horned owlet found on ground in Severn, near a decoy great horned owl.

The best place for the owlets that need to be renested is high off the ground and near their original nest, but it’s not always feasible, or safe , to renest fallen owlets in their original nests – as such, this work isn’t for the faint of heart.

In March 2021, a great horned owlet fell from its nest in Pasadena, Md. The first attempt at renesting the owlet in the original nest was done with a tree climber and no heavy equipment – this resulted in the tree climber getting attacked by an adult owl that was guarding another owlet in the nest.

Great horned owls are big birds with extremely sharp talons that can do some damage.

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April 2021. An adult great horned owl is not happy with a tree climber near its nest.

The climber was very shaken up and had a few talon cuts to his neck – after consultation with paramedics, he decided he not to go to a hospital, but would follow-up with his doctor.

April 2021. Great horned owl attacked a tree climber in Pasadena during a renesting attempt.

“This is the first renesting I’ve done for anything – owl, hawk, osprey – where the adult bird attacked the person renesting the hatchling,” explained Owl Moon Raptor Center Volunteer Rescuer Nancy McDonald. “I’d been told that a parent or both parents could watch and possibly fly by, but never anything about an actual attack using the talons to inflict a wound on a human. I was stunned.”

A subsequent attempt the next day resulted in a successful renesting of the owlet in the original nest, thanks to the use of heavy equipment – the noise and appearance of the equipment likely kept the adult owls away.

When the original nest can’t be located or is too difficult/unsafe to access, alternative nests such as laundry baskets are used.

April 2022. Owl Moon Raptor Center Volunteer Rescuer Nancy McDonald secures a laundry basket to tree for renesting of Severn great horned owlet

Adult owls will continue caring for their owlets until they are old enough survive as long as they’re renested close to the original nest.

Neighbors, often that originally called about the downed owlet, are then asked to keep an eye out after the renesting so there’s confirmation the owlet is being cared for.

April 2022. Owl Moon Raptor Center Volunteer Nancy McDonald places a great horned owlet in a laundry basket nest. Photo by Owl Moon Raptor Center Volunteer Carolyn Copper.

Some owls will continue to use these alternative nests during future nesting seasons – some for many years.

The story of a washtub being used in Michigan as a nest was shared recently on Facebook. According to that post, “49 owlets have been raised in that metal washtub, including the three that are in the photo from this year.”

In Annapolis, an alternative nest has now been used for four seasons – this one, a laundry basket, was put up by McDonald and her wife, Karen McDonald.

Before the renesting was done, the owlet received a quick checkup at Owl Moon, then given the go-ahead for renesting – help was provided by a local tree company.

March 2019. Great horned owlet rescued by Nancy and Karen McDonald. Photo courtesy of Karen McDonald.

“Karen McDonald took charge and told the climber to begin his ascent,” began Nancy. “Once he got to the spot we selected for the nest basket to be hung, he pulled it up via long rope, hand over hand. Karen gently placed the owl in a cloth bag, secured the opening with the long rope, and the climber pulled her up, hand over hand. Then he put her in the nest basket and quickly descended to leave her in peace.”

“It’s unbelievable what it’s it done for us as a community,” said Karen Kahn, who lives in close proximity to the nest.

“We affectionally call ourselves the Hooter Club,” Kahn said. ” It ‘s a group of women that have totally adopted our great horned owls, We actually have Fire Pit Fridays to discuss the owls.”

The “Hooter Club” (left to right) – Sheen Goldberg, Maria Dawson, Jenny Gruver, Cathy McGuire, Mary Lou Fondren and Karen Kahn. Photo courtesy of Karen Kahn.

Kahn said the ladies always keep a respectful distance from the owls and are very careful not to gather during birds evening hunting hours.

“We are truly genuine when we say,  we are concerned  for these beautiful raptors in our neighborhood,” Kahn explained. “Their health, growth, safety and survivability and that they can thrive right here in our big back yard is absolutely a life’s treasure. And our neighborhood is a must better place because we get to share a glimpse of their life’s beginnings within our community.”

There’s something else the owls have given Kahn, who is a photographer – they’ve provided a lot of photo opportunities.

Three great horned owlets in a laundry basket in Annapolis. Photo by Karen Kahn.

“I’ve watched them fledge,” began Kahn. “I’ve watched them climb the trees, I’ve seen them fly. I’ve seen the parents call them. I’ve watched one of the baby owls catch its dinner – it was a fox. I’ve watched the parent flying in and sit next to it, just in case it needed help. I watched them do tug a war with their dinner. ”

There are times when an owlet needs to be renested, but its parents can’t be located or it’s impossible to renest in the same area. A foster nest, one with different owls, can be used, but it’s of utmost importance to find one with owlets that are close in age to the orphaned owlet – older, larger owlets can reject and kill younger, smaller ones.

The need for a foster nest happened recently and while McDonald was searching for one, she returned to Kahn’s neighborhood to see if that nest would work – it wouldn’t and another, in a different location, was found.

“It’s truly incredible what Owl Moon Raptor Center has done for us,” said Kahn. ” I really have to call out Nancy – she was just here like three weeks ago. I love her – she is a resource that is just incredible.”

McDonald said, “After Karen and I did the renesting, these ladies wanted to be so respectful of the owls and not to disturb them or cause them to leave – they asked for resources and information to make sure the owls stayed and raised their babies.”

Other species of owls are also renested, but it’s not always as easy to see them in tree cavities or nest boxes.

The laundry baskets or other containers used for great horned owls not only provide safe, alternative nests for the birds, they can give humans an inside look into the homes of their very wild neighbors – sometimes for years.

And for at least one community, the experience has created great friendships among human neighbors.

“We have become a much stronger community of neighborhood friends now, that really cherish this time and experience together,” said Kahn.

For help with any injured, orphaned wildlife or downed wildlife in Maryland, always contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

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Donna L. Cole is an award-winning investigative and multimedia reporter. She’s also a volunteer bird of prey rescuer.

2 Replies to “Renesting of great horned owlets can provide alternative nests for years – and friendships among human neighbors”

  1. Respectfully request approval to share this post with our community association – Winchester on the Severn. Thanks in advance.

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