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We returned to view the owls two evenings after our first encounter with them. When we arrived we discovered two of the youngsters sitting within a couple of meters of our observation location. These birds quickly, but very clumsily, flew down into the wash and perched, side by side, on the same large Palo Verde on which I had previously observed one of the youngsters.
It was a very warm evening and the two young owls spread their wings. Birds do this in hot weather as a way of dissipating heat. You’ll notice that the owlet on the right side of this image, while about the same size as its sibling, has a paler face. Great Horned Owls show a fair amount of plumage differences between individuals.
These two youngsters were only days out of the nest. Fledgling Great Horned Owls leave the nest before they’ve developed anything approaching adult flying skills and can be very clumsy. One of the two young birds had a bit of difficulty maintaining its balance on the Palo Verde and spread its wings in order to remain on the perch.
No adult birds were in sight, at first. However, after some minutes had elapsed, I spotted a large bird flying across the wash from the opposite side. It was the female parent. She landed on a Saguaro Cactus about 50 meters from where we stood. As we watched her, a bit of motion caught our eye, and to our delight, a second adult owl, the male parent, flew in and landed on a Saguaro just a handful of meters away from us.
The male has paler plumage than his mate has and is much smaller than she is. The size disparity between the male and female quickly became evident, because moments after the male landed, the female flew in and joined him on the Saguaro.
Female birds of prey are often larger — and sometimes much larger — than are the males. That said, the size difference between the two adults is quite pronounced in the case of this pair. I’ve seen other pairs of Great Horned Owls where the disparity isn’t as striking as it is here.
The two adults certainly knew that we were observing them but they seemed indifferent to our presence. These birds obviously had a choice of perches but chose to perch just a few meters from where we stood. They remained together for several minutes before separating. The comfort that this pair showed in the presence of humans is doubtless due to the fact that they had nested on a suburban street in two consecutive years and had become inured to the comings and goings of people.
As twilight deepened I made a few final images of the youngsters. The two young birds nuzzled each other.
One shouldn’t attribute human or even mammalian motivation to birds’ behavior. What I observed and photographed certainly looked like mutual affection but I won’t go so far as to say that’s what it was. Pairs of adult birds sometimes engage in mutual preening (“allopreening”) as a way of showing affection or, at least, of showing that they are not aggressive towards each other. This behavior certainly looked like allopreening. Perhaps it was the owlets’ way of reassuring each other that they were in a secure location.
It’s not often that I have the opportunity to portray wildlife as intimately as I have in these images. As I said at the beginning of this series, I faced a dilemma with the large number of images of this owl family that I’d collected. I’m convinced that it was worth it to post a considerable number of them.
Images made with a Canon R5, Canon EF 400mm f4 DO II lens+Canon EF 1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), stabilized by monopod, settings varied..