Patient of the Week: Great Horned Owl Nestling Orphaned After Storm

By Ashley Lema, Wildlife Rehabilitator

On February 23, we received this nestling Great Horned Owl–our first baby of the season! The ice and snow storm that passed through the Pacific Northwest caused a lot of damage, including downed power lines, trees and branches–which can affect early nesting animals. Unfortunately that’s exactly what happened to this little owlet. A good Samaritan in Canby, Oregon found this Great Horned Owl among some fallen branches. At this age, approximately 1 month old, they cannot survive on their own, and have not developed enough to be able to climb back up into the canopy. Great Horned Owls spend about 5 weeks in the nest before beginning to explore nearby branches. At week 9 or 10, the birds begin to fly. As they become more mobile, fledgling owls take short flights and will often spend periods on the ground, and are capable of climbing back up to safety. But even once they are fully flighted, the owlets must learn to hunt, and remain near and are tended to by both of their parents for several months before they are ready to embark on their own life in the wild.

Great Horned Owlet in its enclosure

Luckily, the young owl was not injured during the fall, and is in good health. Like all wild animals, the best option for this bird would be to reunite with its parents, who are best equipped to teach it how to survive in the wild. However, in this case, that wasn’t possible, so the bird will remain at the center where our experienced wildlife rehabilitators will raise it. One of our biggest concerns during this process is to ensure that the bird does not become too comfortable with or reliant on people, which is why we’ll combine this bird with other young Great Horned Owls as soon as possible. We use a variety of techniques to keep young animals wild, which vary depending on the species, but always involve keeping our contact with them to a minimum. As you can see from the bird’s defensive posture in the photo (which was taken over a staff member’s shoulder just before they caught the bird for daily weighing), so far this little owlet is responding to people appropriately – as frightening predators.

The nestling Great Horned Owl standing in a defensive position, wings spread, and trying to look as scary as possible to get me (the predator) away.

Great Horned Owls respond to predators and other threats with bill-clapping, hisses, screams, and guttural noises. They will also spread their wings to appear as large as possible, and even strike with their feet if the threat escalates! The young owl is all fluff right now, and still needs to grow in all of their flight and body feathers. Once fully grown, Great Horned Owls are large, mottled brown/grayish overall, with huge yellow eyes, and large “ear” tufts, that aren’t always erect. Their appearance helps them camouflage with the trees they reside in.

Video description: Nikki, our Ambassador Animal Coordinator, has Julio the Great Horned Owl sitting on her leather raptor handling glove.

Great Horned Owls are powerful predators and one of our most common owls, distributed all across North America. They are highly adaptable and can be found in varied habitats across Oregon, including but not limited to; forests, cities, backyards, deserts, woodlands, meadows, farmlands, and wetlands. You might wonder why you have never seen one if they are so common. That’s because they are mostly active at night, or sometimes dusk, which is when they go hunting. They find a high perch, and then watch and listen for prey below. They have extremely good hearing and vision! They then fly silently, pursuing their prey, swooping down and capturing it with their deadly talons. Great Horned Owls have the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. Their diet is mostly small mammals but can also include birds, large insects, reptiles, fish, carrion, etc. They have even been recorded preying on animals as large as Great Blue Herons, Striped Skunks, and Peregrine Falcons.

This young owlet now in our care has a similar story to Julio, our ambassador Great Horned Owl. When Julio was a baby, she fell from her nest, but instead of being brought to a wildlife rehabilitator for reuniting or care, the finder decided to raise her as a pet. Because she was raised incorrectly, and never learned how to be an owl, she can’t survive out in the wild. On top of that, it would be unsafe for people as well, as she does not have her natural fear of humans and can approach people in frightening or dangerous ways. Sadly, we cannot always reverse the behavioral damage done to wild animals that have been exposed to human interaction. But we can educate others so that future owlets like this one get to live their life out in the wild, where they belong. Julio showcases what this nestling will look like once fully grown.

How to Help

  • Spring is coming, which is our busy baby season here at the Wildlife Care Center! Knowing how to tell if a wild animal is truly orphaned will save you and us a lot of time. The biggest mistake people make is seeing a fledgling on the ground and thinking it needs help. This leads people to unintentionally kidnap a young animal that is still being cared for by their parents. Most people don’t know that fledgling birds, including young owls, typically spend about a week on the ground as they develop the strength to fly. If you find a baby bird and you are unsure if it needs help, you can call our hotline for advice on your specific situation. You can also view our detailed information page on what to do if you find a baby bird.
  • Never attempt to keep or raise a wild animal if you are not trained and licensed to do so. We see many babies brought to us after receiving care from well-intentioned but inexperienced caregivers, and without exception they are in poor condition which may or may not be reversible. Remember that caring for injured and orphaned wild animals requires special training, foods, tools, and facilities, and the very best thing you can do for these animals is to get them to the closest permitted rehabilitator as soon as possible.
  • If you find an injured, ill, or orphaned wild animal, the best thing you can do is contain the animal in a securely closed (but ventilated) box and keep the animal quiet and undisturbed until you can transport it to your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility. Do not ever handle, pet, or cuddle wild animals; not only is this stressful to the animals because humans are predators, but it can cause behavioral issues in young animals and puts you and your loved ones at increased risk from zoonotic disease (illnesses that can be transmitted from animals to people). 
  • Do not offer any food or water to wild animals, especially to young animals. Every year we receive young insectivorous birds that have been fed seeds and young seed-eating birds fed worms, raptors fed raw ground meats which puts them at risk of food-bourne illness and nutritional imbalances, and many species fed breads/pastries which can cause impaction and diarrhea. We also often see young animals that have been fed cow’s milk, goat’s milk, milk replacers, or random internet formulas. Only mammals produce milk and every species’ milk is nutritionally different; providing the wrong milk or food can cause nutritional imbalances, physical obstructions & impactions in the gut or crop, and life-threatening diarrhea. Young animals that are fed water, milks, or liquid diets are also at a high risk of aspiration (breathing in the liquid), and often develop life-threatening pneumonia. As much as we understand the urge to provide food and water, please don’t! It is much easier for us to help an animal recover from a period without food and water than it is for us to correct the disruptions and medical issues that arise from improper feeding.


Here at Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center, we accept new patients from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. every day. You can also leave a message on our Wildlife Hotline at (503) 292-0304 or email and one of our solutions counselors will get back to you and provide advice for your specific situation.


Unfortunately due to COVID-19 we had to operate our Wildlife Care Center this past year with about 20% of our normal staffing and with about a 25% increase in our annual patient admissions. We were left with the difficult but necessary decision to discontinue providing follow-up updates on patients brought into our center so that we could focus on the daily care of the animals. And while we simply cannot write a story about each animal, our goal for this fresh and bright new year is to show you what we can: in the form of a weekly patient update! Check in every Thursday for our “Patient of the Week”; with information on the species, the circumstances that brought the animal in, and preventative advice so you can be a better steward for our wildlife!

If you’d like to contribute to the Wildlife Care Center, please consider making a donation here. Your support helps us save lives.