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A sleeping owl is visual Xanax; an owl in the dark is something else entirely

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It's hard to see owls at night. That's the point. Ask any rodent.

Tough to track, even for humans, the nocturnal hunters have met their seeing-in-the-dark match in the form of a new, infrared live camera that's keeping round-the-clock nest watch.

The 24/7 owl-cam turns on Thursday as part of an explore.org initiative, underwritten by the Santa Monica-based Annenberg Foundation

The "Long-Eared Owl Cam" is believed to be the first ever setup in the wild, according to Denver Holt, founder and director of the Owl Research Institute in Montana.

Holt has been studying the long-eared owl for nearly 30 years. He says he's banded at least 1,700 and located 225 nests — but he's never been able to see what the birds do at night.

An infrared camera and microphone have been mounted on top of a pole and hidden in willow thickets, aimed at a long-eared owl nest. Holt believes there are four or five eggs. Yes, owlets.

WATCH LIVE AT EXPLORE.ORG | The stream is currently unavailable for embedding at the broadcaster's request. 

Holt is anxious to see how the birds share child-rearing, how they interact with other species and how many naps they take during the night.

"There are only so many animals in the world admired by masses of people. There are penguins, some bears, whales and owls," Holt said.

The birds can be found throughout North America and Europe, "but because they are nocturnal and studies are so few, we don't have a good handle on what is going on in the populations." He knows in some areas, including his, the birds and rangeland are disappearing together.

An average female long-ear weighs between 11 and 12 ounces; an average male weighs between 9 and 10 ounces. "They are all feathers and wings," Holt said. 

The seasonally monogamous animals, known to settle in deserted magpie nests, tend to match the color of their environment and have feather tufts in the middle of their heads that may serve as camouflage. They can live to be five to 10 years old.

A friend to farmers and home owners because they eat voles or field mice, Holt and other researchers over the years have identified 35,000 RIP prey (over 95 percent were voles) from their collection of "puke balls" — thumb-sized pellets that owls regurgitate after a full meal.

Don't worry, the kids get to play with them. 

Holt said some people collect the balls, dry them out and sell them to schools, but that the institute provides them to area schools for free. Science students study the pellets and examine the small skulls of the voles and other species that have been eaten (the occasional mouse, pocket gopher and bird). 

So, what do owl-cam watchers have to look forward to?!

  • The female laid her eggs a few days apart.
  • The births will be staggered.
  • The chicks will start getting big at two weeks.
  • At three weeks, the mother will start sitting outside the nest.
  • A few days more and the chicks will screech for their food.
  • Soon the babies will start branching or climbing clumsily onto branches above the nest.
  • Owlets will fall, but also keep moving further from the nest.
  • Screaming demands for food will grow louder.
  • It is likely the birds will move out of camera range as they venture further away. 
  • The mother owl will finished nesting when the chicks are around 11 weeks old.
  • She will leave and likely not be seen again.
  • The father owl will continue to feed the chicks until they leave.
  • They will leave like they arrived, in a staggered sequence.

Of course, this is assuming our beloved birdies stay free of a raccoon invasion. The institute will keep the cam trained on the nest until there is nothing left to see, Holt said.

Charlie Annenberg, the founder of explore.org and vice president and director of the foundation his grandfather Walter Annenberg founded, said the "Pearls of the Planet" series has put cameras on osprey, puffins, brown bears and polar bears, generating millions of streaming hours from all over the world.

Point of interest: long-eared owls (live-cam!) don't have long ears, and great horned owls (live-cam!) don't have horns.

With contributions by Machiko Yasuda

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