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How owls bring up their babies

When it comes to childcare, look no further, the owl clan is here.

Written by Ranjit Lal |
July 18, 2021 6:30:22 am
Love Me Do: The little rotund spotted owlets cosy up on a branch (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

With their gigantic staring eyes, phantom flight and wide range of calls — deep bass hoots to witch-like shrieking — owls have always been a personal favourite. Among each other, they also seem to be hugely affectionate: I will never forget the time I watched a pair of barn owl smooch passionately at the entrance to their gulmohar tree residence one foggy Republic Day sunrise, while their three woolly youngsters watched goggle-eyed (“Babies, pay attention: this is what the suryanamaskar is really about!”). The familiar little rotund spotted owlets, too, like a cuddle and, sometimes, whole families cosy up on a branch. Images are galore on social media of hand-reared owls affectionately kissing their human caregivers — and, sometimes, even other pets, like dogs. I don’t abide with keeping birds as pets, but if you ever rescue a fledgling, feed it till it can fly and let it out every night so it can learn to hunt on its own (of course, keep a dead mouse ready just in case it flies back still hungry!).

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The owl clan serves as a wonderful example of different ways of childcare. Most owls make exemplary parents — the adults usually bond for life and both parents take care of the brood. While the “man” of the family goes hunting, the mom stays back and guards her babies (cheering die-hard patriarchs, hang on!) When the male comes back with a delectable rat in his talons, he hands it over to his partner who then feeds the chicks.

Now, barn owl (most widespread) chicks may be born several days apart because the eggs were laid that way. The first-hatched are naturally bigger than their siblings. In many raptor families (eagles and kites), sibling rivalry is fierce and bloody. Especially in tough times, the elder chick kills its sibling to hog all the fare. In barn owl families, the larger siblings let the little ones feed first, but, since there’s no free lunch, the little ones have to groom the older brothers and sisters in return.

Among the really big eagle-owl, the fiercely-protective mom won’t allow her partner to come to the nest with his hunting spoils but will take it from him to dismember and feed her babies. She’s afraid that in a fit of macho-swagger he might just gulp down his own babies (in how many human families have intrepid moms sheltered their children from drunk dads?) Alas, déjà vu, Mr eagle-owl might have a second missus tucked away in a mansion nearby and must feed two families.

But there’s at least one species where the much-worshipped “maternal instinct” is happily completely absent! Ornithologists in the UK were tracking the movements and breeding of short-eared owls (a winter visitor to India) using long-life solar-powered trackers and found something unexpected. A lady owl duly settled down to nest, laying her eggs and dutifully incubating them as her husband kept watch. Once the last little chick broke out of its egg, the mom packed her bags and left! She flew 14 hours, all the way to Norway, where she found another dude and began a family — which again she deserted once the babies hatched! Back “home”, her erstwhile partner/s diligently picked up the gauntlet and raised the babies. Now, this was not a “one-off” by an exceptionally liberated lady short-eared. This is what they do as a species.

Of course, the most liberated of owls must be the little burrowing owl — very similar to our little owlet who would be scaldalised to learn what went on with this decadent Western relative! The burrowing owl — found in the Americas — nest in the burrows of prairie dogs in colonies cheek by jowl with one another. The lady of one burrow may take a fancy to the beefcake next door while her own partner happily makes eyes at the delectable young dish across the pathway. The end result: no one knows whose babies are whose and no one seems to care.

The adults continue with their wanton ways and the babies, usually half-siblings, waddle into burrows at random and are affectionately fed and looked after by whoever’s burrow they enter! After all, a baby is a baby and must be cared for! Actually, this could have survival value: say you’re a baby owlet chilling with your friends and are checking out the neighbourhood. A coyote approaches: naturally, you’re going to dive into the nearest burrow asap and not attempt the long hike home! Burrowing owls would be appalled to know what went on in the families of many “higher” carnivores and even primates — where a newly arrived Rambo slaughters the babies of the lady he’s wooing — after tearing her erstwhile partner to shreds! Their genes — which are behind this kind of self-promoting fanaticism — need education, and could learn a lesson from this little golden-eyed owl!

As for our genes: No comments!

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