Pet owls?

Twice I’ve seen dead owls by the side of the road at the intersection of the San Diego and Garden Grove freeways (405 & 22). Both were large-ish and had fluffy white feathers on their undersides. Their tops were very light tan with white spots.

Although I know there are owls of some sort in the local San Bernardino Mountains, I’m not aware of any owls native to this area. Could these have been pet owls? Is it legal to own owls as pets? Or were they wild owls that lived in the area. What kind of owls were they? I thought they might be barn owls, but they looked to light compared to photos I’ve seen on the 'net.

(BTW: I know very little about owls. I was just thinking of the ones I saw.)

I remember when “Harry Potter” came out last year, there were animal experts telling people that owls don’t make good pets and telling parents not to attempt to get one for their children.

From my experience, owls are pretty mean. I wouldn’t want to keep one around.

How about a screech owl? That is an aptly named bird. It would be a nightmare to live with one of those.

Actually, I’ve heard that owls (despite their reputations) are not very intelligent.

So I’m guessing from your reply that they weren’t pets. Any idea what kind of owls they were, and where they would live in busy Orange County?

A couple decades ago I knew somebody whose family had a pet owl. If memory serves, I would guess it was a great horned owl - it was big, certainly big enough to have taken out the neighborhood cats if it got a chance. I don’t know how they came to have it, but I do believe it was raised from a chick, or whatever you call a baby owl. I never saw much of it - it seemed to want to keep its distance from me, generally getting off its perch and rather sulkily moving elsewhere in the house if it noticed me. I was informed that it generally seemed to dislike male visitors, and usually behaved like that.


Barn Owls, I betcha. Looked a little like this, yes?

They are ubiquitous in the U.S. and get along quite nicely in cities ( certainly suburbs ), feeding on rats and mice. I knew a pair that nested in a palm tree down the street from me for a couple of years.

Why you found two dead on the same road, I have no idea. But it might have been fledglings coming off a tree and getting whacked by a car. In fact even adults have been known to get hit by cars, while swooping low over a road ( they often fly pretty close to the ground ). Could have also been disease.

  • Tamerlane

Oops, in my hurried read, I hadn’t noticed you had already mentioned Barn Owls. They will vary in shade, from paler to darker. But as far as I know, nothing short of the Snowy Owl or the arctic morph of the Great Horned Owl is paler.

I do know a few folks that have kept owls as pets, but mostly they were professional ornithologists that came by them in a variety of ways. I don’t think they are enormously popular in the falconry community, but I have heard of Barn Owls being kept by falconers before ( they will hunt in the day, though not with great regularity ).

  • Tamerlane

Oops, in my hurried read, I hadn’t noticed you had already mentioned Barn Owls. They will vary in shade, from paler to darker. But as far as I know, nothing short of the Snowy Owl or the arctic morph of the Great Horned Owl is paler.

Was it paler that this?

Did it have the same sort of fluffy, extremely-rounded face? If so it was still probably a barn owl as the have one of the most well-defined “facial discs” of all the owls.

Most of the folk I’ve known that have kept owls have been ornithologists, but a few falconers do as well.

  • Tamerlane

Could be west nile virus, call the CDC.

Nawww screw it

I couldn’t see their faces. If the barn owls are ubiquitous, then that’s probably what they were. They were very pale from what I could see.

I guess they could have been hit by cars if they were flying low. There is a field nearby (I think the facility is an ammo dump, but there are crops on top that may attract rotents). Maybe they saw a rodent and got themselves whacked because they forgot to look both ways. The merge point has a bank and some bushes, so I suppose they might not have seen a car coming.

Is it true that owls are not very smart?

The book One Man’s Owl by Bernd Heinrich describes life with a “pet” owl (great horned) he raised from a chick.
The bird was friendly and amusing, but not your ideal houspet. If he was put outside for the night he’d bang on the window to be let back in. Once inside, he’d run around all night making noise and getting into mischeif. He liked to eat dishrags and would leave dishrag pellets as evidence for his crimes.
The biggest problem with the owl was getting along with other people. He considered the owner his mate, but anyone else was an interloper who needed to be attacked. It became dangerous to visit with Attack Owl on patrol.
After several years the owl became more independant and eventually left his human home for the wild life.

Also, I’ve met some wildlife rehabilitators who caution against keeping birds of prey as pets. The problem is that the birds don’t learn to “keep away” from humans. which is dangerous to both the bird and any human he wants to mess with. It’s against the law, anyway. My advice, stick to parakeets or cockatiels.

Wildlife rehabilitator checking in: owls are very commonly hit by cars. I get about 10-15 injured birds a year in my rural area. They seem to be particularly low fliers, and they are often hit during daylight, as their vision is quite poor during the day. Owls are not ideal pets; in my opinion and experience, most larger birds and especially raptors are just not suitable as pets. Falconers I have know generally avoid owls as they are slower than falcons, and more reluctant to hunt larger game, preferring rodents and newborn rabbits to adult rabbits, pheasant, etc.

When raised from birth, some species of owl become surprisingly tame, especially the barn and saw-whet owls, although it is illegal in my state to take any bird from the wild without a permit. However, as house pets they are a nightmare: they routinely destroy belongings, ripping cloth and sometimes eating it, as someone mentioned, destroying any paper goods left around, and they are noisy- not just soft hooting, either. Feeding them is a problem for some people, since they do require rodents or chicks, and owls raised by humans from birth are often not competent enough to hunt for themselves. They imprint on humans as being conspecifics, and so cannot be released to the wild, as they do not recognize other owls as potential mates and are very unsuccessful hunters compared to wild-born owls.

In my experience dealing with injured wild owls, they tend to react much as you would expect any injured wild animal to respond: with fear and violence. I use double-thick elk-hide shoulder-length gauntlets in dealing with raptors; for larger birds, even this can be piereced. When they first arrive, they are frightened and weak, and resent any attempts to force-feed or -water them. Gradually they begin to trust me more, but never to the extent that they would willingly approach me for food, and they would always scream if I moved too close or too fast. I have been scratched, bitten, and wing-slapped by raptors many times, and it is no fun. But this is necessary- any ‘bonding’ with humans would impede their re-release after recovery. I have taken a few owls from people who illegally took them from the wild; only one was successfully re-introduced. The others were either killed on roads or had to be given to bird sanctuaries to live out their lives in human company.

Owls are generally rather curious birds as far as raptors go; this may also contribute to their status as accident victims. In my (rural) area, wild owls have taken up residence in a few trees on the treeline, and they will sit on the roof of the pole barn and watch you go about your business, although any loud noise or sudden movement will cause them to retreat. I’ve heard anecdotes about wild owls landing on people’s shoulders or accepting food from the hand, but these are just anecdotes, not the norm, and this sort of thing is definitely not to be encouraged. Raptors are not pets; they can be dangerous and destructive, and it is illegal to take them from the wild. Falconry as a sport requires a massive investment of time and money, and in my state requires at least a two-year apprencticeship under a certified master falconer and a license from the state. (All for a considerable fee, of course.) If you’re really interested in owls, or in falconry as a sport, just google it- you’ll get tons of links, and the most casual perusal will tell you just how time-consuming and expensive falconry and the keeping of raptors is.

Lest anyone get the wrong impression, I’m not interested in having an owl (or any other bird – too messy) for a pet. I haven’t seen any owls around here except for the two dead ones, so I thought they might be pets that escaped. I had no idea there were wild owls living around here. (Or “there” – in Orange County.)

Thanks for the answers. I didn’t know owls flew so low. That would explain how they ended up at the side of the road. But I’m curious about their eyesight. I’ve always heard that they had excellent eyes, to find and catch their usually camouflaged prey. Why would their eyesight be worse during the day? (I have no idea when these particular bird were hit. Could have been night or day.) Wouldn’t bright light make the pupil smaller and increase their depth-of-field?

Possibly my single most favorite book from childhood was Owls in the Family, by Farley Mowat. But I sure wouldn’t want to try to keep one myself.

The HELL I would make a good pet!!

Ahem. Sorry.

Anyway, screech-owls don’t screech. The Eastern screech-owl has two calls: one is a decending whinny, and the other a monotone, repetitive “tooting”. The Western screech-owl also has the monotone, repetitive “tooting”.

Now if’n a want screeching, barking, whistling, horking, grunting, and other raucous sounds to make the hair on the back of yer neck stand straight on end, then the Barn Owl is yer man, er, bird.

However, I will say, it would be anightmare to live with an owl. I used to work for a very large (inter)national bird-and-other-wildlife conservation organization, and we would get in birds that well-meaning folks would try to keep as pets or rehabilitate on their own. Besides being ornery as well as curious, the stench factor of an owl is something that most folks would not tolerate for long. Trust me on this one: I’ve had a Great Horned Owl, an Eastern Screech-owl, an Osprey and a Black Vulture in my kitchen (well-sterilized after each one). The Osprey and the Black Vulture were the least stenchy. Yick.
[screeching halt]

Johnny! Contact me again! I still have your fez, but lost you address in a computer crash.

[/screeching halt]

Depending on the nearby terrain, could it be that the owl was diving on prey and didn’t account for oncoming traffic in its dive? I think owls also do some of their prey-location via hearing, not just vision. Owls do hunt in daylight - up here (Alaska) they have little choice in the summer, since there are long stretches when it is NEVER dark. However, they are still more active at night, regardless of the lack of dark.

Not sure on the reasons why the owls would’ve been low enough to be struck - most of my owl experience is with captive education birds (non-releasable due to injury or imprinting on people) - and it’s pretty much ALL been with one particular great horned, not much with barn owls. One other thought, though - are there phone or power lines nearby? Sometimes they either hit the lines and knock themselves out of the air, or, in some cases, electrocute themselves on power lines (requires certain circumstances to be present in order to happen). Naturally they just fall down under the lines then, or not far from them. Also, it seems unlikely in your area that anyone was out taking pot shots at them, but even though it is illegal, some people do that (often enough from their cars, pulled up on the roadside under the perched birds). Hope that’s not it - too aggravating to think about.


I witnessed raptor strike on the shoulder of I-280 just south of SF - I think it was a red-tail, but not certain.

and, IIRC, owls do a pretty-much-straight-line attack - perch to ground - if that path crossed a highway, yes, a birdstrike would be a distinct possibility

and, yeah, I’ve heard that owls are dumb, even for birds - no cite, no evidence, just 'heard in passing"

screech-owl, I’m in central California. If it isn’t an owl by the name of screech owl that calls for hours repetitively and extremely loudly in the middle of the night, what sort of owl is it? (I’ve seen the bird, no question it’s an owl.)

On another note, I’ve a love for burrowing owls. They are so cute when they’re being curious about human activities, I can barely stand it. (Seems to be a common opinion.) Maybe they don’t make pets in a conventional sense, but they pretty much have people figuratively eating out of their hands…

According my handy-dandy Birds of the Middle Atlantic States, the section on “Intelligence of Various Bird Species”, most experts agree that members of the Corvid family such as crows, ravens, and bluejays are among the most intelligent birds to be found in the US. They have well-developed probelm-solving skills, show a high level of cognition and memory retention, learn at a rapid pace, and a few individuals have been able to mimic human language and use it appropriately and contextually. Pretty impressive. Of course, many larger psittacines such as macaws, and especially the African grey parrot (anybody remeber Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s famous grey, Alex?) are often noted for a high level of intelligence as well, especially what some researchers refer to as ‘social intelligence’, possessing an understanding of social relationships and their dynamics, a modified ‘theory of mind’, and emotions such as empathy and jealousy.

Raptors appear to be nowhere near as ‘intelligent’ as either corvids or larger psittacines, although raptors are not social and thus do not display many social behaviors which humans often confuse with intelligence. A favorite rant of mine is the pointlessness of labeling any species ‘intelligent’- if unbiased tests cannot be devised for humans, all members of the same species, how could one possibly objectively attempt to assess the intelligence of another species? Humans also often confuse human-like behaviors in other species, mainly social behaviors, with intelligence.

It does appear, however, that owls and other raptors do very poorly at cognitive tests, taking on average longer than most other bird species to arrive at correct answers and retaining learned responses only over much shorter periods. This only tells us that owls and other raptors are worse at cognitive tests and memory retention. It’s hard to conclude anything useful about their actual intelligence from this, as the evolutionary and survival startegies of these species are vastly different, and taking into account that a stadard scientific definition of intelligence does not exist.

Sorry for the double post, but I forgot to ask- screech-owl, what sort of stench do you mean? I’ve had barn owls, saw-whets, screech owls, black and turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, sparrow-hawks, and even an injured (captive-bred) Harris. Sure, they have that ‘bird smell’, which can be a little overwhelming, but no stench. Of course, I never brought any of them into the house- they stayed out in the pole barn. Raptor poo can be a little malodorous, especially after eating carrion, but not too bad. It’s much stronger than regular seed-eater’s poo, but fruit-eater’s poo is the worst, IMO.

(I can’t believe I’m talking about the comparative odors of bird poo. God bless the SDMB.)