By Lauren Alejo
In the cavity of an ancient eucalyptus tree at the Starr Ranch Sanctuary, a mother barn owl feeds her screeching babies. At home, more than 300,000 viewers have watched the lives of the Starr Ranch celebrities on computer screens via the Owl Cam.
What’s been the fascination?
The Owl Cam, in operation since 2009, can be accessed any time of the day at the Starr Ranch website. It provides live footage of the barn owl nest. From hatchling to fledgling, viewers can watch the birds develop. Perhaps it’s the emotional attachment to the birds that has generated such a high number of hits on the Owl Cam.
Pete DeSimone, manager of the Starr Ranch Sanctuary since 1988, offers another explanation.
“It’s not something you’ll ever see in a zoo,” he said. "It gives you access to something wild and unique.”
DeSimone’s life has been centered around birds, and specifically raptors, for 30 years. While earning his bachelor's degree in wildlife management at the University of Maine, he spent his spare time staking out the nests of various birds of prey. He would often construct blinds in trees near the nests to watch the birds in their natural habitat.
Thanks to DeSimone, we can watch these birds in the comfort our homes. Although wildlife has always been his passion, he has kept current with trends in technology. The Owl Cam was the perfect opportunity for him to marry his knowledge of technology with his interest in birds of prey.
“You don't miss as much,” DeSimone said of the camera's watchful eye.
Unlike many other bird cams, the Starr Ranch Owl Cam is in a natural environment. The nest was selected by the owls -- not built by humans. Comments on the Starr Ranch Barn Owl discussion board have jokingly labeled the tree cavity that houses the nest "The Ritz" because of its ideal location. The nest is well protected in a two-foot deep cavity, 40 feet above the base of the tree.
The response DeSimone has received from the public has been overwhelming. At one point during the first year of operation, the Internet server that housed the Owl Cam received so many views that it became overloaded and shut down. DeSimone had to change the media provider to one that could handle large amounts of traffic, especially after sunset when the owls are the most active, feeding and swooping in and out of the nest.
“I love the interaction on the site of people wanting to learn and share with each other what they see,” DeSimone said.
The Owl Cam’s increasing popularity has not gone unnoticed. In March 2011, Huell Howser, best known from his California’s Gold television series on KCET, featured Starr Ranch and the barn owls on Visiting ... with Huell Howser where DeSimone and the entire 4,000 acre sanctuary were brought to the public eye.
Despite the connection with the owls that many viewers may feel while watching the Owl Cam, the birds are wild creatures that struggle to survive. Only 10% to 20% of these birds will live to adulthood -- and this statistic holds true at Starr Ranch.
“It’s hard for people to grasp,” said DeSimone of the owls’ mortality rate.
Any number of challenges can befall the baby owls, from competition for food within the nest to outside predators. Last year, Owl Cam viewers watched with concern as the sixth owl to hatch, “No. 6” as he was called, struggled to survive; he eventually died. Because he was one of the last owls to hatch, his development was far behind his bigger and stronger siblings, making it difficult for him to get enough food. Viewers pleaded with DeSimone to help the baby owl, but he stood by his decision to let nature take its course.
But rules are made to be broken. This year DeSimone opted to provide aid when the entire clutch became endangered due to the absence of the father owl, which was found dead Feb. 3; it had been dead two to three days but had been absent from the nest for about two weeks. The owl showed no signs of starvation, nor was there any indication of broken bones.
Unable to leave the nest unattended, the mother cannot hunt for food. DeSimone has made several food drops to the nest but is looking for a more permanent solution. Talk of sending the owls to a rehabilitation center has been dismissed because it would not prepare them for life away from humans.
The best-proposed solution for this clutch is foster care by nearby barn owls. According to a statement released by the Serrano Animal and Bird Hospital/Orange County Bird of Prey Center, an animal hospital that has worked with Starr Ranch for over 20 years, “Field biologists are searching for nests with similar aged babies to foster. Hopefully, some of the babies will survive long enough to be transferred into an appropriate nest and fledge normally with foster parents.”