Blue Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary in Pendleton, Ore., and in the Tri-Cities area specializes in raptor care and serves a large area of Eastern Oregon and Southeastern Washington. The sanctuary takes in a variety of wild birds that have been injured or poisoned, are sick, or are orphaned. They usually treat, rehabilitate or raise about 900-1,000 birds a year. Last year, they handled about 1,500 birds, the larger number due to an influx of orphaned barn owls.
Many of the orphans came from nests in hay stacks that were disturbed when the stacks were taken apart to ship and sell. The increased numbers of orphans in Eastern Washington are largely due to a robust West Coast export hay market.
As milk prices are so low, domestic dairy farmers are feeding only about 7 pounds of alfalfa a day versus a usual 14 pounds, relying instead on cheaper feed as a supplement. Hay farmers have moved toward a robust export hay market, with growing sales in Saudi Arabia and China, and stable export markets in South Korea, Japan, United Arab Emirates and Taiwan.
Many of the orphaned barn owls are raised at The Blue Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary Hack Facility in the Tri-Cities, where many of the orphans originate. The area north of Pasco has few trees and places for the owls to nest, and hay stacks are heavily used.
The hack site is set up so conditions can more closely replicate a natural environment and the care raptors would naturally receive from the parent birds. Initially the young owls are raised inside and fed fragments of mice. At about 1 month old, they are able to eat mice whole and are moved outside to nest boxes.
This period in their lives when they grow fast and transform from being fluffy and down-covered to an awkward stage as they develop feathers is called fledging — and it is when the young owls consume about 10 mice a day. Later, when they are fully feathered, they eat four to five mice a day.
When the young owls can fly proficiently, they disperse. The Sanctuary just received permitting for banding, and hopes to band many of the orphan owls this year so they can track their survival rates and dispersal areas.
In 2018, for just the orphan owls, the Sanctuary bought 73,000 mice. The increase in orphan owls boosted the sanctuary’s food costs from $75,000 to $100,000. Mice arrive dead and frozen; with postage each costs 70 cents. Members and donations from the website answered the call for extra funding.
This year, if hay sales continue on the current trend, they could expect a robust orphan population again. The Sanctuary relies on volunteers to transport owls and are hoping to raise funds to put up temporary nest boxes for the young owls. Donations are always needed for food and supplies.
They are also working on a plan to put temporary nest boxes up near where hay stacks are being moved when an owl nest is found in a stack. The challenge has been that the temporary boxes have to be free standing as there are no structures, fence post trees or even power poles to mount the boxes.
The Friends of Ladd Marsh (near La Grande, Ore.) have donated $300 for materials to make the boxes. The Sanctuary’s goal is to leave as many baby owls with their parents — the best place for the owls to be — saving Blue Mountain Wildlife money and benefiting Washington hay growers with the maximum amount of free rodent control.
All About Barn Owls:
Spring comes early for barn owls.
These birds do not migrate, and very early nesting pairs in mild weather years may begin laying eggs and setting the last days of January and in February and March. The main season is in April and May. Some early nesting pairs may have a second brood in July, August or even September.
Barn owls may have three to as many as eight or 10 young but, they have a high mortality rate.
Mild winters generate higher survival rates of young plus a higher population of rodents for them to feed on.
Barn owls are found almost worldwide and favor grasslands, deserts and open spaces such as hayfields over forest, foraging from 1-3 miles from nests. They are also commonly found in urban areas.
Voracious hunters of small mammals including rodents, a owl pair and their young may consume over 1,000 mice, voles, rats, gophers and young rabbits each season. Undigested bones and fur are regurgitated as pellets below nests and are an interesting science dissection project to determine what the owls are eating.
If an owl pair nests twice, the number of rodents consumed doubles — a great benefit to farmers everywhere including viticulturists, hay farmers, grain growers, orchardists and vegetable farmers. Even in urban areas, rodents cause extensive damage to plants, crops and irrigation systems.
Barn owls are nocturnal and don’t hoot. Instead, they make a harsh rasping sound that can startle viewers as they see the birds’ white, moon-like, ghostly faces swoop overhead or stare down from the shadowy reaches of a barn or tree. They are silent, precise hunters due to specialized feathers on their faces that direct sound to their ears. Their silent flight, acute hearing, excellent vision and sharp talons and beaks makes them incredibly good predators.
Barn owls are cavity nesters and don’t build nests but lay eggs in tree cavities, cliffs, barns, large structures, appropriately sized and located nest boxes, and crevices in hay bale stacks. They may return to the same nest each year. Nests are also used for roosting outside of the nesting season.
Nest boxes are especially valuable in areas where there are few large, old trees or structures, and they help keep owls from nesting in hay bales, where the nest and young are subject to disturbance when bales are moved — which can generate numerous orphan baby owls in some years.
The boxes have helped barn owl populations recover where natural nesting sites are scarce. Females generally lay four to 10 eggs that hatch in about 29-34 days. While females incubate the eggs, males bring food to the nests.
The owls fledge (begin to grow feathers) at about 4 weeks, but they don’t fly until about 2 1/2 to 3 months of age. The young owls take some time to become proficient hunters.
Release of a captive-bred animal is a slow process, allowing the creature to enter its new environment gradually. “Hacking” is a commonly used method of release that allows young birds to enter their new environment progressively and in a natural manner, without excessive contact with or dependence on humans. In this process, young birds are placed in an outdoor enclosure when they are capable of maintaining their body temperature and feeding themselves without the aid of a parent.
At the hack site where many of the orphans are raised, the nests (holding eight to 12 baby owls on busy years) have ladders going up to them and are avidly used by the young just learning to fly
Blue Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education
71046 Appaloosa Lane, Pendleton, Oregon 97801
There are many resources on the web describing how to build and site nest boxes.
Guide to building and placing owl boxes:
Songbird, Bat and Owl Boxes. Univ. of CA Agriculture and Natural resources
Cornell Lab of Ornithology Nest Watch has many guides to building and siting nest boxes.