August 9, 2010 • 5:36 pm

If you’ve watched the national news, you’ve probably seen a piece about “the owl box,” the live feed of a pair of barn owls, McGee and Molly, and their two successive broods in a suburban California backyard. (Try here if the link above is busy, but be quiet: Molly’s sleeping.) Millions of people have watched this thing; at any given time there can be 10,000 pairs of eyes fixated on Molly and her offspring.

Isn’t that fantastic? It’s the best reality show of all.  Forget Snooki and her drunken, mass-marketed confreres in contrived encounters. Here is real drama played out in the wild (well, kind of the wild): a mother owl struggling to raise a buttload of chicks. Barn owls live a long time in captivity, but not so long in the wild—there are too many predators, too much disease, and too few nestholes and rodents.

Barn owls (Tyto alba) are beautiful.  They’re monogamous, too: McGee feeds Molly while she’s incubating the eggs, and it takes a lot of rodents to feed the brood.  They also show an unusual directional asymmetry: the right ear is usually bigger than the left (this probably helps them localize sounds, but the right-side dominance is almost certainly an accidental byproduct of an asymmetry mutation).

The huge interest in Molly and McGee gives me hope that people really do care about nature. Who woulda thought?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, in memory of my folks, that the owls’ names almost certainly came from the old radio show Fibber McGee and Molly, which ran for nearly a quarter century (1935-1959) and was a favorite of my dad. When I heard those names, I thought, “whoever named those birds are senior citizens.” And sure enough, they were.

23 thoughts on “Owlcam!

  1. I certainly hope Molly the Barn Owl is not saddled with McGee’s hall closet. For anyone in need of a laugh and a dose of nostalgia, has beau coup installments on line for FREE !

    Oh, and watch the “senior” cracks … (;oP

  2. I can watch (and definitely hear!) barn owls every night in my backyard on the lake :]
    Barred owls are my favorite, though. Their calls are awesome.

  3. There’s a baby in there! Egg 1 must have hatched but no note in the clutch info above.
    Very cool.
    I always am happy when I hear our local owls and get really excited when I see one. Hawks during the day and owls at night in my suburban neighborhood. I’m so happy we have greenways around here.

    Molly’s off the nest now and there are two hatchlings.

    1. Yes, there are two chicks (owlets?). Molly’s a very attentive mom, frequently checking the eggs and checking out the chicks.

  4. My kids and I watched the first batch grow up. I was a little concerned though about owl-rearing practices and wondered if we’d get fond on them only to watch a smaller one get starved or pecked to death or something. At least I know enough to avoid a blue-footed boobie webcam. Luckily they all thrived for as long as we watched (don’t tell me any different – I don’t want to know.)

  5. The huge interest in Molly and McGee gives me hope that people really do care about nature. Who woulda thought?

    I had the same thought when I saw that piece tonite.

    My parents had a set of Audubon prints that rotated in a frame in the house – my favorite was the pair of Snowy Owls, now hanging downstairs.

  6. Dear Jerry,

    as a matter of intellectual honesty towards your readers you should refrain from commenting on birds, unless you are ready to do your homework on ornithology.


    1. On Springwatch a few years ago, there was a rainy spell which limited the amount of hunting the adult owls could do, and so one of the youngsters took to eating his siblings. They called him, of course, “Hannibal”.

  7. Wow – old biology, meet modern technology.

    But too small to be fuzzy cute chicks yet – “chicklets”, maybe? The attentive Molly is the cute one for me as for now. But I’m sure more will fowl.

    The huge interest in Molly and McGee gives me hope that people really do care about nature. Who woulda thought?

    I’m so running up against a cultural difference there. Hereabouts [Sweden] there is no doubt.

    In fact, I seem to remember ideas a few years back that acceptance of evolution was aided by the old societal nature interest. But those ideas seem to have all died with the discovery of the statistical strong correlation between religion and denialism and other social ailments.

  8. Speaking of the huge interest…I was out for a walk the other evening, and paused as usual at the local viewpoint which has a crescent of benches overlooking Puget Sound and the mountains and the sunset. I gazed dreamily for a minute and then noticed a hummingbird perched in a tree a few feet away, so I started watching it; soon a second flew up and the two of them flew around together in a playful-looking way, to my delight. I made some sort of sound, then heard a similar sound behind me; a guy on one of the benches was also watching; he said they’d been there for awhile. Usually when these things happen I have to stifle the urge to pester strangers – “Look! A hummingbird/bald eagle/goldfinch!” It was nice to be not the only one who noticed them.

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