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Owls take over the Presidio’s red-tailed hawk webcam

Enormous nocturnal hunters won fight over live-streamed nest

It’s harder and harder to get families with kids to settle down and make a home in San Francisco, which is why it’s refreshing to see new homemaking additions in the Presidio—specifically, two great horned owls, which stay-at-home naturalists can observe via the park’s 24-hour YouTube stream.

The owl stream is a sequel of sorts to 2018’s surprise hit red-tailed hawk cam. In February of 2018, a hawk pair built a nest in the branches of one of the Presidio’s blue gum eucalyptus tree out of bark strips and dried vegetation—as was the style at the time.

The Presidio trust planted a webcam roughly 100 feet above the nest, and the resulting stream made for curiously compulsive watching as the hawk duo raised a pair of baby hawks.

Last week, the the Presidio announced that some inquiring owls had taken an interest in the treetop habitation:

Great Horned Owls don’t build their own nests; rather, they take over the nests of other raptors.

Over the last few weeks, these owls have stopped by at night to inspect the red-tailed hawks’ nest while during the day the hawks, unaware of the nightly owl visits, have continued to prep the nest for the season.

[...] During the early hours of February 6, the owls laid their egg in the nest. Stay tuned to watch as the drama between the owls and the hawks continues to unfold.

Now it appears the owls have flipped the nest for their own purposes, leaving live-cam watchers with a new family to observe. Viewers in the comment stream have nicknamed the new pair “Baron” and “Baroness.”

Fans of the Presidio hawks might be inclined to resent owl encroachment, but nest theft is just part of the local circle of life.

In 2009, late Presidio forester Peter Ehrlich explained that the owl’s habit of borrowing neighbor nests makes it difficult to estimate family population:

Males and females actually begin their courtship in late fall and can often be heard calling to each other in a kind of duet, the calls sometimes overlapping or “stepping on” each other.

By the middle of February, the eggs, one or two per nest, have been laid. They’ll hatch about a month later, in the middle of March.

The young owls will remain in the nest for a couple of weeks, but by the end of April, they will begin to venture out onto nearby branches and about a week later they’ll start to fly down to the ground.

A great horned owl in British Columbia.
Brendan Lally

Horned owl chicks are perilously adorable, quizzical looking creatures. However, owls are extremely aggressive parents; Ehrlich advised park visitors not to seek out owl nests and to avoid known nest locations.

Named for the fuzzy tufts of feathers around their ears, which create their “horned” silhouettes, great horned owls are native to the Presidio all year around.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, adult specimens reach heights of up to two feet and wingspans of up to five feet. Like most owls, great horned owls are nighttime predators.

“Birds from the Pacific Northwest tend to be dark sooty,” while the same species in other regions will display pale plumage, favoring snowy feathers in arctic regions.