To defend her young from an encroaching snake, Dottie the Texas barn owl reacted with extreme prejudice to remove the threat.
In the infrared video, filmed earlier this month at a Texas ranch, the owl was a ghostly sight. And with a second angle showing the snake creeping towards the entrance to her nest full of newborn owlets, it all had the makings of a horror movie.
The footage comes from the Bird Cams project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which educates people about birds and lets them connect to individual birds through round-the-clock live feeds of species such as red-tailed hawks, albatrosses, ospreys, and, of course, Texas barn owls.
To learn more about Dottie and the recent incident, National Geographic reached out to Charles Eldermire, leader of the Bird Cams project.
What was your reaction when you first saw the footage?
All of us here were pretty impressed with the reaction of the female owl, of the decisiveness and accuracy of her first disabling strike on the snake. And of course [we were] relieved when the snake was evicted from the box.
How old are these young owlets?
At the time of this highlight (May 5), there were three owlets that had hatched out: on April 28, May 1, and May 2. The fourth hatched out on May 6, and the fifth on May 9.
What else can you tell me about these barn owls?
This nest site has been observed for the last two years, and we're pretty sure that the same individuals are using the box, as they have acted very familiar with one another and the site. Last year they had five eggs; only three survived to fledge the nest box. This year we rebuilt the box (as it was deteriorating), added a second outside view, and gave them a little more space.
What can you say about the behavior of the mother owl?
The reaction isn't unusual, but again, the intent and focus (and execution) of her nest defense was really impressive. I think we've become a little inured to these kinds of life-and-death moments from watching nature documentaries, but to watch it unspool in front of you, with no director's curation, no idea what will happen, and to have formed a bond with these birds not just as owls but as individuals, is a fundamentally different experience. That connection can be an important spark to raise interest and awareness.
What kind of snake was this?
A Texas rat snake.
Have snakes or other predators tried to enter the owl box before? Is this common?
Snakes, especially rat snakes, are excellent climbers and known predators of cavity-nesting birds (like these owls). About 8 or 9 years ago, a snake got into an owl box at this site when the nestlings were older and an adult wasn't present and killed one of the nestlings as the rest watched on.
There are predator guards on all of the poles that lead to this box, and there is active management of the vegetation around the nest box to decrease the odds of a snake reaching the box, but nothing is 100 percent effective, unfortunately. Despite that, barn owls have nested at or near this site on this Texas ranch for decades.
One of the young owlets was tossed from the box during the scuffle. Is it ok?
There wasn't an owl thrown out of the box; it only moved across the box when the female jumped at the snake. If you watch the video, you'll see the female gather the nestling back to her and settle back in after the attack.
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