WASHINGTON BORO, Pa. (WHTM) — Feeding baby great horned owls at Raven Wildlife Center is a multistep process. First, you move Pharaoh, the adult owl who’s fostering the babies. Then you weigh the babies-four of them, on the day we were there-and transfer them to a clean cage while you clean the one they’re been in. Then you feed them.
But before doing anything else, Rehabber Tracie Young puts on a camouflage mask. So do her volunteers. And yes, I had to wear one too. Why?
“They associate with what they see, and what’s feeding them, as their species,” says Tracie.
It’s called imprinting, a psychological process where a baby bonds with its parents-or what it thinks are its parents. The process can misfire-badly.
“A lot of these baby animals can imprint, which means that they think they’re human. And they think humans will give them food, and that’s the species that they are,” explains Tracie. “So we wear our camouflage hoods, our camouflage gloves, so they never see humans. They don’t know what’s behind the mask.”
And it’s not just baby birds. Raven Ridge volunteers mask up for any juvenile that comes in, like a fox kit that recently arrived, after being spotted alongside a road-crying. “He’s gaining weight, he’s eating on his own, there are no injuries, nothing we can find.” says Tracie, “So we think something happened to mom. Because a mom fox would never let a kit alone like that.”
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In March, Raven Ridge posted a video on Facebook, which as of this writing has over 1.4 million hits. It shows another technique they use to help avoid imprinting when the owls are very young -a puppet.
“We have a great horned owl puppet that we use, that we actually have the tweezers in to feed this animal. The entire time we’re wearing our camouflage. So they’re starting to focus on the stuffed animal, as the species that they are.”
The current crop of owl babies is now big enough for Pharaoh to start teaching them how to be owls, so the puppet is no longer needed. But Tracie still masks up when it’s feeding time.
Imprinted animals like Bobbie the Blue Jay, one of Raven Ridge’s permanent residents, can’t be released into the wild because they’re dependent on humans, and probably wouldn’t survive.
Imprinted Great Horn Owls, though, could be a hazard to humans.
“They think they’re human, they think that people are nice and that’s what they are,” says Tracie. “But when they start hitting sexual maturity they need to establish their own territory, their own nests, get ready for nesting season, and mating season, they are now trying to establish their territory, and if they see humans, you are now competition, which can become very dangerous.”
Dangerous, as in great horned owls can have three-inch-long talons, which can exert a pressure of up to 500 pounds per square inch.
“Some of these animals, if they are imprinted, it’s very hard to break that,” says Tracie. “And if it’s like, say, a great horned owl, it can be very very dangerous, that if we can’t break the imprint, they would have to be euthanized. We can’t take the risk. So we’re telling the people please don’t rob these babies of their chance of being a wild animal, get them to the professionals.”
Tracie says you can start by sending a picture from your cell phone. “That way we can assess if the animal really needs to come in, because the great horned owls are on the ground at a certain age, and we can look at the picture and they know that baby owl can be on the ground, or it needs to come in.”
And if it does have to come in? Tracie says “Put the animal in a box somewhere warm, dark, and quiet, don’t feed them, don’t try to give them fluids, until they get to us. Then we’re able to assess them, get them steady, and rehabilitate them. We are trained how to do this, how to avoid imprinting, giving these animals a second chance is what we do.”