Bright, golden-yellow eyes and horn-like ear tufts of feathers peep among the trees near Mullen Park on UNC Asheville’s campus, causing a temporary pause on construction.
A family of Great Horned owls hatched two young fledglings who are now able to move
independently. The discovery of the young owls caused campus construction of new residence halls and Highsmith Student Union, to be held until they could fly without the assistance of their parents.
“To put the construction on a pause was really a group decision that was made by university leadership, including Chancellor Grant, that we really all felt collectively, that we were close enough to the fledglings becoming independent that we needed to make this work for all parties involved,” said Dr. Bill Haggard, vice chancellor of student affairs.
Haggard said he was first notified about the Great Horned owls nesting in mid-March.
According to North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, Great Horned owls are the largest owl species in North Carolina. While these owls are not endangered, they are protected by federal and state laws. It is illegal to injure, harass or kill a bird of prey, which includes the harming or removal of a nest.
“They are naturally rare because they’re an apex predator and large apex predators are at the top of the food chain,” said Andrew Laughlin, assistant professor for environmental studies. “Top of the food chain predators are just naturally going to be rare in the environment than lower level trophic organisms. They are not endangered. They are not threatened. They are not even a species of concern.”
Haggard said the pausing of construction allowed the values UNCA holds to be well represented.
“The Great Horned owl is a protected species. It’s not endangered but protected. But, that wasn’t really our leading reason,” Haggard said. “Our leading reason was that these are pretty magnificent animals that you don’t see everyday and it’s part of our institutional values that we value native species, both plants and animals, and we try to preserve as much natural environment as we can around our campus.”
Haggard said the importance of stopping construction was to make sure the baby owls could relocate independently.
Nestlings are approximately eight or nine weeks old before they begin to fly independently. Laughlin said the owlets, now known as fledglings since they can fly, are about seven or eight weeks old.
“About six weeks after hatching, the young are able to leave the nest. They do a behavior called branching,” Laughlin said. “Branching just means that instead of sitting in the nest all day, they move off to a branch and they start flapping their wings to try out their muscles. They will stay in the branches a couple of days and then they will get up the gumption to spread their wings and fly. It usually doesn’t go well at first.”
Laughlin said both of the fledglings completed the branching process.
“So both owls, each one, spent a night on the ground and clambered up into a tree the next day,” Laughlin said. “Now they have been up in a tree and are about seven-and-a-half weeks old. Now they are flying tree-to-tree. They can’t take a long flight by themselves yet, but they can move independently.”
Great Horned owls are not known to nest in the same location year-to-year. They often take over empty hawk nests. Laughlin said the owl family may choose to relocate as soon as construction commences or they may stick around.
“This is the fledglings home and it has been their home for two months,” Laughlin said. “I feel like they may get a little disturbed by the noise. There are some large trees right down slope from where they nested and are staying now that are going to come down by chainsaw.
This will affect anyone living above it and it will be interesting to see if they move on, according to Laughlin. Ultimately, though, it is the bird’s call. He said this movement was not initially up to them, but they were given a break just so they could eventually spread their wings if they wished to do so.
According to Laughlin, UNCA represents its values by keeping owls safe like it does students.
“It values not only the people who make this campus their home for 4 years while they stay here at college, but UNCA also really value the wildlife that calls it their home, too,” Laughlin said. “The grounds crew do an amazing job keeping this campus safe, orderly and pretty, but also wild and natural. That is what drew the owls here to begin with.”
While the owl family halted construction for a few weeks, Haggard said there are no financial repercussions as of now.
“I think it will all depend if those days can be made up. But, we are confident at this point that the contractor can make up these days that we have lost,” Haggard said. “Yet, we really won’t know if there will be a financial consequence until the end of the project.”
Campus construction commenced on Wednesday of last week now the owlets are capable of relocating on their own.