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World Owl Trust - leading the World in Owl Conservation
Thursday 18th December, 2014

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Our Staff are celebrating after managing to breed one of the worlds rarest and least known of all owls.

As its name implies, the Oriental Bay Owl hails from Asia, Malaysia and Indonesia, but being strictly nocturnal and living in dense tropical jungles, virtually nothing is known about it in the wild. It is very much a bird of mystery and unlike any other owl species.

Oriental Bay Owlet in the threatening position

Our first Bay Owls were two males born at the famous Walsrode Bird Gardens in Germany which arrived at the World Owl Centre in March 1998. Unfortunately, because of their rarity it at first proved impossible to find them mates. Then, later that year we learned that a lonely female was living all alone at London Zoo. She too had come from Walsrode in 1996. Though we would have given our eye teeth to have her up here at Muncaster, I was aware that as OTAG (Owl Taxon Advisory Group) Chair the onus was on me to show the rest of the owl world how open-minded and ethical the Trust is in its management of owl conservation-breeding programmes – so with many a tear one of our males was sent down to the bright lights of London to bring a little cheer into the lady’s life!

our new Bay Owl chicks  One of our new Bay Owl chicks

Alas, the fast life in our capital city did nothing to increase their libido and three fruitless years followed – at which stage my ethics were beginning to weaken and I grovelled to London’s Curator of Birds, John Ellis, suggesting that a bit of clean Lakeland air might have a ‘Viagra’ effect! The pair duly arrived back and joined up with the lone male at the World Owl Centre in March 2002 - to loud cheers from all of us here. Unfortunately our cheers were a bit premature!

More of our new Bay Owl chicks  More of our new Bay Owl chicks

Nothing whatsoever happened in 2002 or 2003 and hope began to fade; then, in the spring of 2004 the miracle happened – a clutch of eggs was laid. They were infertile! However, to our delight a second clutch was laid in mid-summer. They too were infertile!!! At this point we sank back in our armchairs and opened copious bottles of red wine to carry us through to the following spring! She had us fooled, she laid a third clutch in August – and glory be, an owlet hatched to the sounds of great rejoicing all round.

We should have known better. Although this rare species had been previously bred at San Diego Zoo, California, and also in Mallorca, Germany and Italy (the latter by our good friend Enrico Albertini), it had never been bred in the UK. However, before one can claim such a ‘first breeding’ it is essential that a youngster survives beyond 30 days. And guess what - our precious owlet was found dead and mutilated (by its inexperienced mum we suspect) at 27 days old, one day before we were about to announce our triumph at our 2004 A.G.M. You can no doubt imagine our feelings!!!

And that was the end of 2004. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! So we cried!

We awaited the onset of the 2005 breeding season with more than a hint of trepidation, especially when the gods decided to forgo spring and early summer this year and instead presented us with gales and floods! And people wonder why my hair is white!

Our new Bay Owl chicks  New Bay Owl chicks

Undeterred, our female Bay Owl began laying her first clutch on 8th March. 3 eggs. The 5th April heralded the return of winter with bitter cold and torrential rain. We started to worry about our precious Bay Owl eggs and decided to check two of them for fertility – they were infertile as usual. Disappointment and a decision taken to remove the last egg as it too would obviously be infertile. It wasn’t, and in the melee of removing it, it broke - revealing an owlet about to hatch!!! At this point we contemplated doing a ‘Reginald Perrin’ and never coming back, but as ever, stubbornness prevailed and we decided to give the birds one more chance.

Our new Bay Owl chicks  One of our new Bay Owl chicks

That came just ten days later when we estimate the first egg of her second clutch was laid (she was confirmed as back in the box only on 23rd April when we believe egg number two was laid, with a third on 25th). I must confess that by this stage we were watching developments more in hope than anticipation, but who could blame us?

On 29th May I could stand it no longer and decided to check the nest. To my huge delight and surprise I could see two tiny babies (estimated 3 and 5days old), but mum was so defensive that I beat a hasty retreat without bothering to linger for a better look.

Next check came on 6th June and all was still going well with two owlets seen at c.13 and 11 days old. The next day saw a big staff gathering to make the final decision as to whether we should ‘pull’ (i.e. remove from the mother in order to hand-rear a baby) or to leave well alone. It was not an easy decision, for rearing a single owlet risked the bird becoming imprinted on its human ‘mother’, rendering it useless for breeding programmes. To take away both would mean depriving our ‘learner’ mum of the chance to become an experienced breeder – which is always our prime aim, given that our breeding programmes are designed to provide birds for possible future reintroduction programmes.

In the end we opted for ‘safety first’ with our eyes firmly on that ‘first breeding’ tag, so somewhat reluctantly we decided to remove one owlet and leave the other with mum.

This was the moment our luck changed. On Tuesday the 7th June Keeper Chris Wilde was sent on the mission to ‘pull’ the smallest owlet. He quickly returned with the sensational news that in fact there were three owlets, the biggest one being at least a week older and much larger than its siblings. The reason we had missed it was that in our haste to avoid upsetting the brooding mother, we had failed to notice No.1 behind its mother! This made our decision much easier. If we had left all three together, it was highly likely that ‘big brother’ would eventually make a meal of his smaller nest-mates as frequently happens with their close relative, the Barn Owl. Rearing two together also eliminated the danger of imprinting.

Our new Bay Owl chicks  Our new Bay Owl chicks

The responsibility for rearing the two precious youngsters fell to Keeper Chris Wilde – known to us all as ‘Super-Nanny’ due to his success at rearing many other youngsters! He has done a brilliant job of this nerve-wracking responsibility and deserves the highest praise. The birds go home with Chris on a nightly basis and inevitably the first question he is asked each morning is “are they O.K.” Thankfully the answer so far is always “#yes”, and at the time of writing both are thriving and are within a few days of reaching that crucial 30 days old – though even Chris would not claim they are the most beautiful babies on the planet! Mind you, I would suggest you don’t try saying that to him!

The best news of all is that ‘big brother’ (we don’t really know what sex it is as yet, though Chris is convinced we have two males and one female), left to the tender mercies of its inexperienced mother, reached the critical ‘30-day’date on Thursday 16th June – which heralded the popping of champagne corks as the World Owl staff celebrated their breeding of ‘The First Oriental Bay Owl Born in Britain’, a dream come true for myself as Trust Director and Founder. As some of you already know, I am retiring at the end of July after 33 years at the helm, and the reason for my current broad smile is that in all this time, I have never before managed a ‘first breeding for the UK’. What a way to go out! Thanks Keeping staff, you have made an old man very happy!

Latest picture of the chicks

Footnote. It is anticipated that the older owlet will leave the nest some time around the end of June/early July and will be joined by his siblings later in July. The parents however, are always on view in the Trust’s ‘Owl Garden’ at Muncaster Castle, open daily from 10am – 6pm.
Further details from The Administrator, World Owl Trust. 01229 717393.

Other babies currently on view at the moment include Great Grey Owl, Ural Owl, Chaco Owl, Hawk Owl, Tropical Screech Owl, Little and Long-eared Owl.

CONFESSION: We haven’t actually had the champagne as yet as I keep forgetting to bring it in, such is my excitement. But I promise you we will. Perhaps we should wait until ‘Big Brother’ finally emerges into the wide world in a a few weeks time?

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