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Romeo & Juliet are two Barn Owls (Tyto Alba) that nest on the porch in front of my bedroom in a nest box that I erected for them. Juliet was brought to me after she was hit by a vehicle on the N2 road between Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown. She had a broken wing and also suffered from severe head injuries.  During the first few days I had to force feed her as she was too weak to eat by herself. Fortunately it was easy to set the wing, but because of a nasty blow against the head she suffered from severe concussion and was also not able to open up the left eye properly for almost 3 months. I kept her in what I call my “Owl Room” and she began the long road to recovery.

During this time my Spotted Eagle Owl “Uiltjie” decided that Juliet needed fresh and natural food. He adopted her and began bringing her fresh rodents that he caught on a regular basis. By this time I was quite used to him doing things like this, but was surprised that a wild adult bird would accept the help of another bird of a completely different species. Barn Owls are not related to Spotted Eagle Owls in any way and are classified in a group of their own. For her to accept his help said a lot about the interaction between wild animals and also shows that they are more intelligent than what people give them credit for. What was even more remarkable was that the room in which I kept Juliet always had a window that was open for “Uiltjie” to come in and feed her, but she never attempted to leave until she was fully recovered. Can it be that this owl realized that she was injured and would not make it on her own in the wild? The window was always open and she knew where it was because she sometimes sat in front of it, waiting eagerly for “Uiltjie” to bring her a rodent. So she was free to leave, but yet she did not until the time was right.

During the last couple of weeks of her recovery, about a month before the breeding season for Barn Owls begin (Usually April/May here in South Africa), a young wild Barn Owl male began visiting her. He actually entered the room where she was kept through the same window that I left open for “Uiltjie”. I caught him a couple of times sitting next to her, grooming her and making their usual mating noises. It was because of this secret love affair that I named the couple “Romeo & Juliet”. It was now time for Juliet to leave the safety of the “Owl Room” and to venture outside and begin a new life together with her new found lover. I immediately constructed a nest box for them and that same evening the two of them moved in.

They mated and after about 3 weeks Juliet laid the first of six eggs. She hasn’t completely recovered from her injuries, but fortunately during the mating and breeding season, the male do most of the hunting and normally feeds the female to show her that he can take care of her and their offspring. Somehow the amount of food and also the availability thereof apparently determines how many eggs the female lay, so Romeo, although he was young and inexperienced, must have kept her well fed because she laid six eggs while the average is normally four to five here in our area.

All six eggs hatched and the two of them managed to raise all of them successfully. I installed infrared cameras in the nest box and captured the whole breeding season on video. During the first season Romeo brought a little bit more than 1,200 rodents to the nest. His prey also included a couple of frogs and birds, but mainly consisted of “Vlei Rats” and “Shrews”. Once the owlets were ready to fledge, the two of them took them to another hunting area and remained with them for about a month and a half, before they returned to their nest. During this time I understand that they teach the young owlets how to hunt and as soon as they are sure that they can fend for themselves, they leave them on their own to begin their own life. They do this to make sure that the prey, where they breed, can recover so that there will be enough food for the next breeding season.

About a month after they returned Juliet laid another five eggs, but this time only four of them hatched. The two of them raised these four successfully as well and after a couple of months, sent them on their way to fend for themselves. Currently Romeo and Juliet are still hanging around here on the farm, but it has been almost a year now since they have bred. We had a very dry season and “Uiltjie” also had ten orphaned owlets to feed during this period, so I think that, together with the drought and the impact that all the owlets had on the rodent population here on the farm, the food was quite scarce and Romeo could not provide enough food to convince Juliet to start breeding again. We also had a problem with their nest as a swarm of bees moved into it and refused to leave. I eventually had to erect a new nest for them and this time placed it in a wild fig tree not too far from their old nest. They almost immediately accepted this new nest, but as Murphy’s Law determines, everything that can possibly go wrong, will go wrong when you least need it. One of our young cats decided to move into the nest and though I kept on chasing her out, there was nothing that I could do to keep her out, so I had to build a new nest box yet again. This time I placed it in the geyser room on top of our house and hoped for the best.

At the time of writing this (24 April 2014), Romeo & Juliet have once again accepted the new nest and have moved in, but have not yet decided to breed again. Hopefully they will do so in the near future as we had some good rains the past couple of days. I have again installed cameras in and around the nest box and will once again capture everything on video. Unfortunately we do not have a fast enough internet connection here on the farm for me to live stream it on the internet, but hopefully, once I am sure that they are going to breed again, I can find a sponsor to erect a satellite dish to enable me to live stream them. If they breed again, I will also upload every week’s highlights to YouTube and will provide links to the videos on this website. So if you are interested, watch this space for an update every week.


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