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The owlets roosting across from the Santa Cruz Police Department learn to fly and hunt on their own.
By Curtis Cartier
IT'S LATE dusk, about an hour after sundown. That's when the first hissing screeches begin to sound in the treetops.
"There they are!" exclaims a binocular-wielding Rebecca Dmytryk, founder of the emergency wildlife care organization WildRescue. "You can hear the juveniles. The whole family will be hunting overhead soon."
On cue, the noisy phantoms in the trees begin to show themselves in splashes of cream white against the dark blue twilight. Barn owls: six juveniles and two adults. It's been six weeks since the baby birds were found nesting inside the sign of Scott's Body Shop on Center Street, across from Santa Cruz Police headquarters. At the time, Dmytryk and her husband, Duane Titus, built a temporary owl box where the sign had been. It was inside this wooden box that the young owls were raised to be nearly the same size as their doting parents. And now, at 10 weeks old, the owlets have left the box for the branches of a tall redwood tree a couple hundred yards away and are getting their first lessons in flight.
"This is a critical time for these birds," says Dmytryk. "They are learning how to fly, how to hunt, where to roost, what to be fearful of. This is when they learn how to be adults."
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The screeching continues as the birds swoop from their roost and circle overhead, specialized feathers flapping silently in the wind. The youngsters trail the parents most of the time, each insatiably calling for the 10 to 15 mice per night it's accustomed to having delivered. But the parents keep the young birds on the move, and though their landings are often an awkward stumble of clutching talons and bobbing heads, their soaring flight looks every bit as graceful as the more experienced raptors.
Barn owls, as the name suggests, thrive in lightly populated areas. In spite of threats from eating poisoned rodents, getting hit by cars and becoming tangled in wires, the birds are common throughout North America. These young owls, each about a foot tall and weighing roughly 14 ounces, will likely live out their lives in the vicinity of their birthplace in downtown Santa Cruz. But within a few weeks, the parents will start giving them the boot.
"At that point, they'll be hunting and surviving on their own," says Dmytryk. "I'm just so proud that they're all here and all doing so good."
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