Earlier this summer, our education department was excited to learn that two barn owls on exhibit at Philadelphia Zoo had successfully nested and laid eggs. This presented us with a great opportunity to work with another local AZA accredited facility and bring in a very young owlet to hand-raise as an ambassador animal! We have wanted to include a barn owl in our educational programming for some time, as the species provides valuable conservation messaging. Barn owls act as a major form of natural pest control, eating hundreds of mice, moles, voles and other small animals each year; unfortunately they face many human-related threats in the wild such as habitat loss, poisoning, and vehicle collisions. This barn owlet would act as an ambassador for its species, helping people to learn to love and hopefully protect their wild counterparts.
The baby barn owl successfully hatched out on July 27, 2020 and spent the first ten days of its life with its parents before coming to Elmwood Park Zoo. When it first arrived, it was just a small, nearly featherless thing, with its eyes still closed and weighing only 85 grams― that’s less than an apple! Education staff now had to step into the role of “owl mom“, providing meals up to 5 times a day and creating a warm, safe nest space with incubators.
Why take on the responsibility of owl parenthood, you may ask? Many zoos and animal institutions are moving towards hand raising or imprinting owls when they are young so that they can get used to all of the unique situations they may encounter later in life in their job as ambassadors. Growing up around people, hearing different sounds, traveling, and spending time in new locations at a young age helps to prevent them from being fearful or stressed as an adult owl. Our ultimate goal is that our ambassador animals chose to participate in their care and presentation, and early socialization generally sets them up to be the most successful!
Our staff has and continues to hand feed and cares for the owl every day; at about 7 weeks old, the little owl has already grown to be 8 times its size and body weight! It has been introduced to car rides, music, television, new people and different indoor and outdoor spaces. It has learned to use its feet and small sharp talons to grab things― mostly paper balls, blankets, and sticks. It has also started to expand its vocabulary― it makes little clicks, chitters, shrieks and sometimes a long, scary hiss.
These sounds, characteristic of the species, are what inspired us to name the owl Banshee. For those who may not be familiar, a banshee is a supernatural creature of Irish folklore, often described as a woman in white who was thought to fly around the countryside at night wailing or screaming as an omen to someone’s death. It is believed that this legend may have stemmed from early people hearing the cry of a barn owl and catching a glimpse of their ghost-white body flying in the night!
As Banshee continues to grow, we will start to work on training more advanced skills using positive reinforcement (tasty treat rewards) for things such as stepping up onto a glove voluntarily, taking walks and doing short programs, and then eventually learning to fly! We hope to document Banshee’s progress and share all of the milestones along the way!
Written by Laura Soder, Manager of Ambassador Animal Engagement at Elmwood Park Zoo