Guest Blog: Ronnie James

Owlets in Triplicate

It was early June when someone brought in three one week old Western Screech owls. My first reaction, as always, was to return them to their parents who would have happily continued to feed and care for them. It seemed, however, that not only was the nest tree destroyed, but the acreage in all directions had been leveled and plowed in preparation for an illegal agricultural use. The finder wasn’t about to tell me the location.

The owlets were little ping-pong ball sized bundles of gray fluff; the food of choice, minced mouse sprinkled with vitamins and calcium. They ate every three hours, gained weight and grew rapidly. Within a week I was able to sleep through the night without feeling guilty.

Owls, like ducks and geese, readily imprint but not until they’re about 3 weeks old when they’re finally able to focus their eyes clearly. Then whatever they see feeding them is how they will visualize themselves for the rest of their lives. To prevent them from imprinting on me, I hid under a hood so they could only see each other, and the picture of an adult Screech owl I held near my feeding hand. Funky, but it worked.

By week 5 they had grown feathers, could handle whole dead mice, and were ready to be released into a 12’ x 12’ outdoor cage built around a tree. I put them in an owl nest box and fed them there for a few days until they came out on their own. Owlets normally will come out of the nest long before they can fly. This is referred to as the brancher-stage. One day I found them sitting on a nearby branch, and my presence frightened them—a good sign. Two dashed back into the box, but the biggest spread its wings, and I had the pleasure of witnessing its first flight to a nearby branch. Landing was a bit of a challenge—it always is the first few times.

I installed a small, plastic swimming pool, stocked it with 2 inches of leaves and dirt, and left them live mice and mealworms so they could learn to hunt for themselves. I knew they were catching the mice because the next day the mice would be gone, and there were three owl pellets on the bottom of the cage. Owls eat their food whole, and when the nutrients are digested, they spit up a pellet of fur and bones.

Owl nest boxes were installed in the woods in sight of the owlets’ cage, and at 11 weeks I opened their door, and watched the owlets fly into the woods near the boxes. I haven’t seen them since! I know from experience they haven’t gone far, and there is plenty of food around. There is no way to know if they’re using the boxes, or have moved on, since they would snuggle in the bottom of the box during the day, and coming out and returning only at night, when I am gratefully asleep. Such are the frustrations and joys of doing wildlife rehab. 

Ronnie James is the founder and operator of a small wildlife rescue facility located on the northern California coast near the town of Mendocino. She has been doing wildlife rehab for nearly 30 years, and recently published a book about her experiences:  Touching Wings, Touching Wild available at  This is one of her experiences that isn’t in the book.

To learn more about Screech owls