A white, fuzzy, wobbly head reaches upward through a fluffy curtain of feathers to be met by a tiny bit of a pocket gopher, gently rubbed against its beak. Iris, the tiny owlet’s mother, utters quiet chitters of encouragement to the day-old owlet as it grabs the tidbit and swallows, eyes still tightly shut.
Iris the Great Horned Owl can’t see out of her right eye due to a puncture to her eye that occurred around 2006. Rusty, her mate, is also blind in his right eye after being hit by a car around 2007. Their lack of binocular vision prevents them from being able to hunt well enough to live in the wild, so they live in captivity in rural Houston as part of a vocal study on their species being conducted by Karla Bloem.
Bloem is the Director/Naturalist of the Houston Nature Center, Coordinator of the International Festival of Owls and the new executive director of the up-and-coming International Owl Center. She has been studying great horned owl vocalizations since 2004, thanks to her education owl, Alice, and the wild owls that frequent her yard.
Rusty and Iris are giving a new level of insight into great horned owl behavior and vocalizations not otherwise possible with wild owls. They live in a large breeding and release training complex that is 96 feet long and outfitted with six security cameras and microphones. This allows Bloem to watch Rusty, Iris and owlets without them knowing they are being watched. It also allows anyone in the world with an internet connection to view them, too.
Bloem hopes that viewers will not only enjoy watching the owls raise their young and learn something along the way, but that viewers will submit observations of interesting behaviors and vocalizations to help her with her study.
Owlet number one hatched on March 15 with owlet number two and number three expected shortly thereafter. The eggs were laid on Feb. 10, 13 and 16 and require 33 days of incubation before hatching.
The owlets will eventually be given names and leg bands. Once they have developed their full territorial hoots they will be released to the wild.
You can watch the live video feeds at www.internationalowlcenter.org: click on “Rusty and Iris Cam” on the left.
You can find video and photo highlights on the blog at www.alicetheowl.blogspot.com and on Alice’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/AliceTheGreatHornedOwl.