8-14 March 2006

Installment #307---
Visitor #Web Site Tracking

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)


The phone at Hilton Pond Center rang late on the morning of 9 March; when we answered, the voice on the other end said breathlessly: "This is Janice Gregory. I'm calling on my cell phone from the walking path at Tech Park in Rock Hill SC with my three-year old and we just came across a baby owl. What should I do?" Upon further inquiry, we learned the owlet was on the ground, and that another beside it was apparently dead. Since free-roaming dogs and cats sometimes wander through Tech Park, we advised Janice to get a towel, drape it over the owl, and carefully scoop everything into a box. When we asked her if she could bring the owl to us at Hilton Pond, Janice said her sister would deliver it after lunch. Being a natural history site, the Center often gets E-mail and phone inquiries about "orphaned" birds, but not being animal rehabbers we always refer folks to someone with proper expertise; our plan was to keep the owl until we could get it to the hawk- and owl-rescue facility at Carolina Raptor Center in Huntersville NC, just north of Charlotte.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Shortly after lunch a minivan pulled into the driveway at Hilton Pond Center. As the driver got out, she said only four words: "You taught me biology." Our response: "Yes, you're one of the Self girls, from Northwestern High School in 1984." Her reaction, somewhat disbelieving: "Wow. How did you remember that?" To which we replied: "How could we forget students who hung around the biology lab showing above-average interest--and who happened to be twins." Indeed, the person who had just arrived introduced herself as Julie Self Buchanan, twin sister of Janice Self Gregory, who had called earlier about the owl. We didn't realize the caller had been the former Janice Self until we recognized Julie as soon as she got out of her minivan at Hilton Pond. "You were the first person Janice and I thought about when she told me about the owl," Julie said, which made us feel pretty good; after all, it HAD been 22 years since we taught the Self girls as sophomores in high school biology. They were solid students, varsity volleyballers, and great kids--with Janice ('86 senior photo, above right) a bit more studious and Julie a tad more out-going--and both being unforgettable students for all the right reasons.

After a reunion hug and a little more small-talk we asked Julie about the contents of that large corrugated box on the back seat of her minivan. She remarked the owl was lively and alert and that it had just defecated in the container--all signs the bird was probably healthy and in good shape. With that news we carefully opened one flap of the box and peered within. Sure enough, on the bottom was a down-covered owlet, and it was indeed perky and looking up at us. Based on its size and yellow eyes (above) we knew it was a Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus, since the only other large nocturnal raptors nesting in the Carolina Piedmont are Barred Owls, Strix varia, and Barn Owls, Tyto alba--both of which have dark eyes.

As we slid our hands under the owlet, we gently grabbed each leg at its base and lifted the bird out of the box. (Had this been a fully grown Great Horned Owl we would have been far more cautious; an adult has no trouble sending its talons all the way through one's hand.) In typical owl fashion the youngster clacked its bill loudly and made faint effort to flap its wings, although these front appendages had little strength and mainly just drooped (above). Legs provide a good place to grip a young owl since they develop very quickly; after all, a nestling with weak feet and legs would be at constant risk of falling from its nest. (Why this particular owlet was no longer a nestling is anyone's guess, but strong, gusty winds had besieged the region for several days and nights and may have blown down the nest before Janice Self Gregory found the owl.) Interestingly, each of the owlet's legs had a featherless spot on the "knee" (below)--possibly the result of long hours of squatting on sticks in the nest.

When we placed the young owl on the ground it drew itself into a ball of fuzz and recommenced clacking with its bill, looking straight up at us and eye-blinking all the while. Blinking in most birds can happen in two ways, the differences being especially obvious in owls that seem to open and close their eyes in slow-motion. One blink mode is similar to that of humans and occurs when the owl shuts its skin-covered external eyelids. The other happens as the bird sweeps its "third eyelid"--the nictitating membrane--across its eyeball. The membrane (below left), which moves diagonally from front to rear, is semi-transparent and still lets the owlet "see" as the eye surface is moistened and cleaned. This adaptation likely enables an adult bird to keep its orientation while flying and allows it to continue to monitor its surroundings for potential predators or other dangers.

We further examined the orphaned Great Horned Owl for other anatomical wonders and to see if we could determine any problems. We found none of the latter but were impressed by the bird's molt progression. Although much of the owlet was still covered with the white fluffy down it hatched out with, several body parts were showing signs of more advanced plumage. The bird's back, in particular, had numerous pigmented contour feathers, with the most striking molt occurring on its wings. There, the dark tips of the primary flight feathers were just beginning to break free from their translucent, pale blue sheaths (below).

Satisfied the owlet was in good shape, Julie Self Buchanan bid us adieu and departed Hilton Pond Center, knowing we'd let her and her twin sister know the fate of the little bird they had rescued. As soon as Julie was gone, we called Carolina Raptor Center (CRC) and left the message we had a viable Great Horned Owl orphan and asked if someone might be available to retrieve it. Within an hour or two we got a response that Sara Enos, a CRC volunteer who also works as veterinary technician at Charlotte's Animal Medical Hospital, would be driving down to York to pick up the "patient."

In the meantime we decided to take a few more photos of the owlet and were amazed at one of its behaviors. When we placed the owl on the ground and looked down, it again peered back at us and blinked and bill-clacked, but when we got down to take a ground-level shot (above) the owlet lowered its head, opened its sharp decurved bill, raised its rump and hackles, turned the top surface of its wings toward us, and--we think we can safely say without being anthropomorphic--tried to make itself look as big and as menacing as possible. We've seen adult Great Horned Owls behave this way in the wild but were surprised to find such bluffing was apparently innate even in very young owls. Although we weren't at all scared by the owlet's theatrics, we imagine a potential predator might be taken aback by all this puffery.

After our final round of photos, we put the owlet back in the box and secured it in a warm place. Sara Enos--the raptor rescue volunteer--arrived at Hilton Pond about suppertime, concurred that the owlet was in good shape, and departed with word she'd take it to Carolina Raptor Center on her way to work the next morning. As we thanked Sara and waved goodbye, we noticed something small on the ground fluttering in the breeze. It was a loosely structured down feather dropped by the owl, but it wasn't the white fluffy natal stuff that covered its body for the first few weeks of its life. Instead, it was a mature down feather (below) marked by two parallel dark bars characteristic of down on grown-up owls. We doubt the feather will be missed by the owlet, and it provides a nice reminder of the tale of the orphaned but safe Great Horned Owl, of the "unforgettable" Self twins who rescued it, and of those days long ago when we encouraged our high school biology students to observe, respect, and protect the natural world around them.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

POSTSCRIPT #1: Mathias Engelman, rehabilitation coordinator at Carolina Raptor Center, reports the Great Horned Owl nestling brought to Hilton Pond Center was probably about three weeks old when rescued. It weighed 653g upon arrival at CRC on 10 Mar and was already up to 833g by 16 Mar. The bird is being housed at CRC with two other Great Horned Owl youngsters from two different wild nests; together they're eating about 600g of mice and rats per day, supplemented with vitamins and bone meal. Within another week or so they'll be moved into a large flight cage with a foster mother. Contact with humans is limited to maintain wildness in the birds, and all three owlets are hissing and bill-clacking as they should. By early summer the little owl rescued by the Self twins will be full-grown, at which time it will be banded and then released in York County SC, not far from where it was found.

POSTSCRIPT #2: In general, if you find a fully feathered baby bird on the ground, its parents--even owls--probably will continue care for it out of the nest, so our advice is to Leave Baby Birds Alone. If the youngster is a truly orphaned hawk or owl and you are in the vicinity of Charlotte NC, contact Carolina Raptor Center. No matter where you live, if you need help with ANY kind of injured or orphaned bird, mammal, or other animal, try to reach a local expert directly via How To Contact A Wildlife Rehabilitator.

POSTSCRIPT #3: Marianne Murphy, a good friend and raptor education biologist at Auburn University's Southeastern Raptor Center, tell us the bare spot on the owlet's leg (see photo above) doesn't disappear in adults of several owl species with which she is familiar. We're still puzzled about its function and welcome hypotheses at INFO.

POSTSCRIPT #4: After we posted the above account, Janice Self Gregory sent us a photo (below) she took of the Great Horned Owlet as she found it along the walking trail. The bird was prostrate on an old timber, apparently flattening itself out to be "less visible." The pile of feathers to the left does appear to the remains of a another owl.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

POSTSCRIPT #5: The orphaned Great Horned Owl was rehabilitated by Carolina Raptor Center and released fully grown on 1 May in the Cornelius NC area. Based on relatively small size--971g--the bird likely was a male, since female GHOWs are larger. Prior to release he was catching live prey and exercising in a 40-foot flight cage; CRC banded him with size 8 band #0788-50919. We chalk this up as a success story for the owl, CRC, and the Self twins who found and brought the bird to Hilton Pond Center.

Comments or questions about this week's installment?
Please send an E-mail message to INFO.

Thanks to the following fine folks for recent gifts in support of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History and/or Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project. Your contribution allows us to continue writing, photographing, and sharing "This Week at Hilton Pond."

  • Anne Nolte
  • Robert & Sissy Rea Rosebrock

Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, plus other nature notes of interest.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

You may wish to consult our Index of all nature topics covered since February 2000. You can also use the on-line Search Engine at the bottom of this page.

For a free, non-fattening, on-line subscription to "This Week at Hilton Pond," just send us an E-mail with SUBSCRIBE in the Subject line. Please be sure to configure your spam filter to accept E-mails from

If you enjoy "This Week at Hilton Pond,"
please help

Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
It's painless, and YOU can make a difference!

Just CLICK on a logo below.

Make direct donations on-line through
Network for Good:
Donate a portion of your purchase price from 500+ top on-line stores via iGive:
Use your PayPal account
to make direct donations:


8-14 March 2006

American Goldfinch--8
Purple Finch--69
House Finch--1

* = New species for 2006

3 species
78 individuals

11 species
523 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
47,105 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)


All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

--On 9 Mar a brown Purple Finch made its species the second member of the "7,000 Club" at Hilton Pond Center. With 7,031 PUFI banded by week's end, only House Finches (7,126) outnumber this species in our banding book. American Goldfinches are third with 5,799, followed by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds with 3,246. All the rest of the 120 species banded locally stand at less than 1,900 individuals.

--We were surprised to see a half-grown Bullfrog out and about in the small water garden outside the old farmhouse at Hilton Pond, but March HAS been unusually warm.

--A pair of Carolina Wrens has been working hard all week at the Center, stuffing sticks in a bluebird nestbox mounted on the outside wall of our old banding shack.

--Those Ring-necked Ducks we've been watching since Christmas on Hilton Pond disappeared suddenly on 13 Mar, likely moving toward their nesting grounds.

Oct 15 to Mar 15:
Please report
your sightings of
Vagrant & Winter

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)

Up to Top of Page

Back to This Week at Hilton Pond Center

Current Weather Conditions at Hilton Pond Center

You can also
post questions for
The Piedmont Naturalist

Search Engine for
Hilton Pond Center

Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.

Visit Slovak Republic