Thursday, February 9, 2012

Lights and Chimneys and What You Can Do for Owls

What do strings of holiday lights and chimneys have in common? Think about this for a bit and we will get to the answer in a moment.

Did you know that during the late winter and early spring, several owl species in MN become more active as they establish pair bonds and breeding territories for the upcoming season? In fact, right now great horned owls are laying their eggs and in a few weeks, barred owls and eastern screech owls will begin the search for a nest cavity. With this increased activity comes the increased potential for injury and thus many of the birds the clinic treats during the first 3 months of the year are owls.

Injuries are sometimes traumatic, and frequently they are caused by entrapment. This is the answer to the question about connection between outdoor holiday lights and chimneys. Owls can easily get entangled in the lights decorating trees and cavity nesting species can get caught in what they perceive to be a welcoming cavity – a chimney. In both cases, the birds can’t free themselves, often get injured while trying to escape, may become malnourished if trapped for more than a few days, and end up in need of help. There are things we can do to help prevent these situations from happening:

1. Don’t wait to take down those festive strings of lights. Taking them down right after the holidays may continue to spread the holiday cheer by potentially saving an owl’s life.
2. Make sure that if you have a chimney it is properly fitted with a cap. Local chimney companies can provide that service.

Please spread the word with your family and friends. A little preventative action on your part can help our owl neighbors stay healthy especially during their reproductive season.

(The pictures included in this post are of our staff cleaning a very sooty barred owl, a barred owl with soot still visible around the eyes, and a great horned owl that was photographed near some holiday lights in a Metro area location.)


  1. Really? you're recommending that people cap their chimneys despite the fact that chimney swifts have declined by 50% in the last 40 years in large part because people are removing or capping their chimneys? *sigh*

  2. The Raptor Center is certainly sensitive to the balance of assisting some species and not harming others. With available information, including Audubon's website, we do recommend chimney caps on chimneys. This prevents many wildlife species including raptors from getting trapped and/or injured. Many of the chimneys in question have smooth pipe on the inside, making them uninhabitable for chimney swifts as well as impossible for other animals caught to get out. The animals caught in chimneys many times are looking for suitable nest sites to raise young. In our education programs we are always encouraging people to protect existing habitat or create habitat. As with chimney swifts, this is a habitat challenge. Just as in the chimney swift towers that are starting to be put up, if the habitat is missing components (like roosting and nesting areas) we have encouraged nest boxes or platforms. Audubon suggests having a cap on chimneys from Oct/Nov through April, which is when the swifts start to return to Minnesota, and also the most active time for some of our cavity nesting owls species.