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Nesting Great Horned Owls at Lake St. Clair Metropark

By Julie Champion, Eastern District Interpretive Services Supervisor

The large and beautiful Great Horned Owl is one of the most common and widespread owls in North America. You can see or hear them in most of the 13 Huron-Clinton Metroparks.  However, have you heard the story of the Great Horned Owls in the bucket at Lake St. Clair Metropark?

The story begins in 1991 with a pair of persistent Great Horned Owls. That winter, the pair was unable to find a tree cavity to call home, so as they are known to do, the pair scavenged a squirrel nest to call their own. While a squirrel nest is ideal for a squirrel, it is not designed for the weight or movement of owls. But that winter the persistent owls successfully incubated, hatched, and raised a single offspring.

On April 16, when the baby was just five weeks old, a terrible storm with high winds ravaged the area.  In the storm the nest was destroyed and the baby owl ended up on the ground.  Interestingly enough, this is a common occurrence for owls that scavenge other animal nests.  At five to six weeks of age a baby owl can climb onto a log or an arching tree, and the parents will continue to care for them.  However, our young owl landed directly in the middle of a well-used nature trail.

Park Interpreters came to the rescue and moved the young owl deeper into the woods and up onto a horizontal branch as high as they could reach.  The parents watched from nearby and continued to care for the young bird after the park staff left the area.

The day after hearing about the baby owl’s fall from the nest, volunteer Tom Heatley, an expert bird watcher and bird bander, offered to place a nesting tub in the woods for a safer and more secure nest option.  The park readily accepted his generosity. So, with tree spikes and rope climbing gear, Tom lugged a custom aluminum wash tub up into a tree well off the trail.  He secured it over 50-feet high, where the limbs and vegetation of the tree became dense.  The tub features drainage holes in the bottom and a comfortable layer of sticks and wood chips inside.  With the tub in place, Tom collected the young owl, banded it and placed it in this new metallic “nest.”

The young owl stayed in the tub for the rest of the day while the parents tended to it.  However, by the following day the baby owl was out of its new nest. After all, it had already fledged once, and this was not its original nest, so out it came. The young owl took up roost in some nearby lower trees, on branches a safe distance from the ground. The fledged baby owl grew well and was on its own by the end of summer.

However, the tub was a success! Those persistent owls now knew this bit of real estate existed, and that it might make a fine site for future nests.

Since 1993, Great Horned Owls have raised young in this tub, providing countless visitors an opportunity to view nesting owls in the wild, since you can see this wash tub from the trail.  To date, 39 Great Horned Owl babies have been successfully reared in the bucket.

Remember, to stop by and visit but visitors must stay on the trail and view the owls from a distance.  If you get closer, you could startle the female off the nest, allowing the eggs or the young to be exposed to the potentially fatal winter cold.

You can also learn more about the well-known “Owls in the Bucket” at Lake St. Clair Metropark by attending the Owl Festival on April 7.  This event features guided hikes to view the nest and a live owl program with Joe Rogers from the Wildlife Recovery Association.

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