Bird Cams FAQ: Barred Owl Nest

September 1, 2013
Barred Owls about to start branching on the Birdcams Barred Owl cam, 2014
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Answers to your questions about the Barred Owl nest. If you’re looking for the answer to a specific question, type control-F (command-F on a Mac) and start typing in your search terms to quickly find the answer.

About This Nest

Where is the nest located?
How long have the owls nested in this location? Will they use the same nest site again?
Do you know how long these owls have been mates?
How can you tell which one is female and which one is male?
How old are the adults?
Do they have names?

Natural History

How big are Barred Owls?
Do they mate for life?
How old are they when they have their first nest/nestlings?
Do both parents sit on the nest?
The female has been sitting on the eggs and the male hasn’t brought her any food. Isn’t she hungry?
How big is their territory? And how far do they travel to find food?
What do they eat?
Do they eat the bones too? Why do they eat the bones?
That bird just threw up. Is it sick?
What’s the white film that you sometimes see over the bird’s eye?
Do owls have teeth?
Why is the poop white?
How do they get water?
Do they sleep?
Do they only hunt at night?
Do they have a sense of smell?
How well can they see?
How well can they hear?
What kinds of sounds do they make?

Nests and Eggs

How many eggs do Barred Owls lay?
When are the eggs laid?
How long does it take for the egg to hatch?
How big is the egg?
No one is sitting on the eggs or young. Won’t they get cold?
What happens if the eggs are damaged?
What is “pipping”?
When the chick is still in the egg, how does it get air to breathe?

Chicks

Which parent sits on the nest with the young?
Why hasn’t one of the eggs hatched even though the others have hatched?
Which parent feeds the young?
When did the chicks hatch?
Are they males or females?
How can you the individuals apart?
Do the chicks have names?
Are you going to band the chicks?
How big are the chicks?
The chick seems hungry. Why haven’t the parents fed it?
Won’t the babies get smothered from the parents sitting on them?
Why is that big one picking on that little one?
When will the chicks leave the nest?
When does the chick get adult plumage?
Do the parents feed the young birds after they leave the nest?
How do the nestlings get water?

More facts

Where do Barred Owls live?
How many Barred Owls are there?
How long do they live?
What predators are threats to Barred Owls?
What other dangers do Barred Owls face?
Do Barred Owls migrate?
Do the young stay in the same area as the parents after they are independent?
Are Barred Owls aggressive? How do they attack?
Where can I see a Barred Owl?
What can I do to help Barred Owls?

Camera

Does the camera bother the birds?
How long will the camera stay on?
What type of camera is being used?
Why is the nest so bright at night?
Does the light disturb the birds?

About This Nest

Where is the nest located?

The nest is in Zionsville, Indiana. The next box is placed 30 feet high against the trunk of a pignut hickory tree.  It is in the backyard of Jim Carpenter, President and CEO of Wild Birds Unlimited.

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How long have the owls nested in this location? Will they use the same nest site again?

This Barred Owl nest box has been up since 1999, but was first occupied in 2006. Since then, the box has hosted several nests, including successful nesting seasons in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Individuals have been observed to use a nest site for numerous years, and territories can be occupied for at least two to three decades, suggesting strong site fidelity over time.
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Do you know how long these owls have been mates?

No.

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How can you tell which one is female and which one is male?

Female Barred Owls are up to a third larger than males. Males and females show no obvious plumage differences, but if one member of a pair is larger, then it is probably the female. You can also tell the difference between them by watching their behavior; only the female incubates the eggs and chicks.

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How old are the adults?

We don’t know. The earliest Barred Owls will start nesting is at two years old and they can live for over twenty years.

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Do they have names?

The adults don’t have names, but each year the cam audience has helped choose names for the owlets.

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Natural History

How big are Barred Owls?

Barred Owls weigh 1–2.5 pounds. They are 16–20 inches long and have a wingspan of 39–44 inches. Southern individuals are generally smaller than northern ones. The female is up to one-third heavier than male.; her greater mass probably serves as an “incubation energy reservoir” as she may lose up to 30 percent of her body mass while incubating the eggs.

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Do they mate for life?

There is still a lot to learn about Barred Owl breeding ecology and reproductive success, in part because their nests are hidden and inaccessible. Judging from the fact that individuals are known to maintain territories for many years, pairs probably mate for life and are monogamous.

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How old are they when they have their first nest/nestlings?

Barred Owls usually don’t breed until they are at least two years old. After this time they usually breed annually, though they may skip a year from time to time.

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Do both parents sit on the nest?

No, just the female. She has a featherless area on her abdomen called a “brood patch” which is designed to keep the eggs warm. This patch has lots of blood vessels just beneath the skin that transfer heat to the eggs.

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The female has been sitting on the eggs and the male hasn’t brought her any food. Isn’t she hungry?

Prey delivery by the male to female during incubation does not happen too often and the female may lose up to 30 percent of her body weight during incubation. This may well be the reason why female Barred Owls are bigger than males; they are able to store more energy in their bigger bodies for an extended incubation period when they don’t eat very much.

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How big is their territory? And how far do they travel to find food?

Home ranges of the Barred Owl vary according to location. In Indiana, home ranges are probably about 620 acres, roughly one square mile, and most of their food is found within this range. Breeding ranges may be smaller than home ranges and non-breeding areas may be bigger. Home-range overlap is extensive between mates during the breeding season, but decreases as the breeding season progresses. In general, it appears that these owls are solitary outside of the nesting season.

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What do they eat?

Barred Owls are generalists and opportunistic predators. Small mammals and rabbits make up most of their diet, but they also eat birds up to the size of grouse, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. They hunt by sitting and waiting on an elevated perch, while scanning all around for prey with their sharp eyes and ears. They may perch over water and drop down to catch fish, or even wade in shallow water in pursuit of fish and crayfish. Though they do most of their hunting right after sunset and during the night, sometimes they feed during the day. Barred Owls may temporarily store their prey in a nest, in the crook of a branch, or at the top of a snag. They swallow small prey whole and large prey in pieces, eating the head first and then the body. At this nest we have seen the female bring small rodents, cottontails, various birds, fish, crayfish and other invertebrates.

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Do they eat the bones too? Why do they eat the bones?

Owls typically swallow small prey whole, bones and all. Bones are broken down in the stomach to provide important nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus. Any indigestible parts of prey such as fur and undigested bones are regurgitated as a pellet.

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That bird just threw up. Is it sick?

You probably observed it regurgitating or “casting” a pellet. When a prey item is swallowed whole, indigestible parts of prey, such as fur, bone, and tough insect parts, will form a pellet in a muscular area of the stomach called the gizzard. Barred Owls usually cast 1 pellet per meal, though this can vary according to the type of prey consumed. Pellets are often cast before eating their next meal.

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What’s the white film that you sometimes see over the bird’s eye?

Birds have what is known as a nictitating membrane or “third eyelid.” This is a clear eyelid, closest to the eyeball. It is transparent and can close and protect the eye when hunting.

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Do owls have teeth?

No birds have teeth. Owls swallow food whole or rip it apart in their beak and swallow pieces.

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Why is the poop white?

Bird poop is actually brown. The white pasty excrement is uric acid, the equivalent to a mammal’s urine. Mammals excrete waste as urea dissolved in urine; birds excrete it as uric acid, which has a low solubility in water, and so it comes out as a white paste.

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How do they get water?

Barred Owls get most of the water that they need from eating their prey, though they are occasionally observed drinking water.

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Do they sleep?

Yes. When asleep they will close their eyes.

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Do they only hunt at night?

Barred Owls primarily hunt at twilight and during the night, though occasionally they hunt in the daytime. Peak hours of hunting are usually soon after sundown, with a lower peak prior to sunrise.

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Do they have a sense of smell?

Traditionally, scientists assumed that most birds have a poor sense of smell because the area of a bird’s brain involved in smell is relatively small compared with the area found in mammals. However, recent research reveals that some species of birds have a high number of active genes that are associated with smell. Scientists have also discovered that some species of birds can tell each other apart by smell. So, though we don’t have all the details, and no specific studies have been conducted on Barred Owls, they probably do have some ability to smell.

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How well can they see?

Barred Owls have excellent vision. Owls’ large forward facing eyes give them the best stereoscopic vision of all birds, which is vital for judging distances. The shape of their eyes, their unusually high number of light sensitive cells, their large pupils, and a reflective layer behind the retina (called the “tapetum lucidum”) give them excellent nocturnal vision useful when hunting at night or navigating dark forests. Like other owls, the shape of their eyes limits their ability to move them in the eye sockets, but their necks can turn up to 270 degrees. This is accomplished by the 14 vertebrae in their necks, twice as many as in mammals. Adaptations to a nocturnal lifestyle have compromised owls’ abilities to focus on objects very close. Tactile bristles surrounding the beak partially compensate for their less-than-perfect close-up vision.

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How well can they hear?

Barred Owls have superb hearing. Like other owls, their ears are placed unevenly on their head and point in slightly different directions, giving the ability to tell where a sound is coming from without moving their heads. Feathers around the ears can also be fluffed up to act as a funnel, directing sound right towards their ears. Their acute hearing allows them to catch mammals burrowing through snow. Their hearing may also compensate for their less-than-perfect near vision during the final stages of a hunt.

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What kinds of sounds do they make?

You are more likely to hear a Barred Owl than to see a Barred Owl and they are more vocal than most other North American owl species. Their typical call is a rich, deep hooting that sounds like “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”. They also make single hoots and have a loud series of spectacular dueting vocalizations during courtship that sound like maniacal laughter. Females have a slightly higher pitched call. Owlets make begging calls throughout the nestling period, and older young beg from parents by making a regular squeaking sound that can sound like a hiss. Calling occurs throughout the year, but is more frequent prior to egg-laying and in the late summer and fall, possibly corresponding to the dispersal of the young. Bill snapping in both young and adults is associated with aggressive interactions.

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Nests and Eggs

How many eggs do Barred Owls lay?

Barred Owls lay between 1–5 eggs, usually 2–3. They have one brood per year, but if an early clutch is lost, they may lay a second or even third clutch.

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When are the eggs laid?

Eggs are laid from December until April depending on the location of the nest, with laying being later in more northern regions. In Indiana, eggs are usually laid in March. In some areas, scientists have noted a 1–3 day period between the laying of the first and the second egg, and 2–4 days between the second and third eggs.

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How long does it take for the eggs to hatch?

Usually between 28–33 days.

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How big are the eggs?

The eggs are about 1.7–2.2 inches long and 1.5–1.8 inches wide. They are pure white with a rough surface. Each egg is about 5 percent of the female’s weight.

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No one is sitting on the eggs or young. Won’t they get cold?

It is normal for parents to leave the eggs and nestlings exposed now and then. In most cases, they don’t stay away long enough for the eggs or young to suffer harm. Barred Owls have evolved over millions of years to cope with variables such as harsh weather.

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What happens if the eggs are damaged?

If only one egg is damaged, the parents generally continue to incubate the other ones. If something happens to the entire first clutch of eggs, early in the breeding season, Barred Owls will often lay a second clutch.

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What is “pipping”?

“Pipping” refers to the process of the chick initially breaking through the shell, using a hard projection on its bill called the egg tooth. The resulting hole is the “pip” that the chick then enlarges to finish hatching.

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When the chick is still in the egg, how does it get air to breathe?

Oxygen gets into the egg through pores in the shell. Owl chicks may take more than 12 hours to make their way out of the egg after pipping. They get their first big gulp of air when they pierce the membrane of the egg under the shell. Once they pip, they keep their bill close to the pip and the growing crack they’re working on.

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Chicks

Which parent sits on the nest with the young?

Only female Barred Owls incubate the eggs and brood the young. She has a “brood patch” of bare skin that helps warm the eggs or young; the male does not.

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Why hasn’t one of the eggs hatched even though the others have hatched?

Barred Owls typically lay an egg once every 2–4 days until their clutch is complete. Sometimes they start incubating after the first egg is laid, but they may also wait until the second egg is laid. The eggs laid first have a head start and hatch sooner than the ones laid last. In some cases, however, an egg may not hatch because it wasn’t fertilized or because the embryo didn’t develop properly.

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Which parent feeds the young?

We’ve seen on the camera that both parents bring food to the young, though only the female on the nest tears the prey into pieces and offers it to the nestlings. The male delivers prey to the female on and off the nest and she feeds it to the chicks. By 2–3 weeks of age, the young are able to consume prey on their own. At this time, the male will still deliver prey to the female off-nest for her to take to the nestlings, but he also begins to deliver whole prey directly to the nestlings. Once the young are this age, the female’s hunting increases. Males have also been observed to deliver prey during the day.

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When did the chicks hatch?

In most years the owlets hatch in early April.

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Are they males or females?

Without DNA testing, it’s almost impossible to tell when they are young. As they get older and achieve their adult size, we may be able to guess depending on how big they are.

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How can you tell the individuals apart?

When they are young, the oldest is usually the biggest, and the youngest, the smallest.

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Do the chicks have names?

Each year the cam audience has been given the opportunity to vote on names for the owlets before the young birds fledge.

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Are you going to band the chicks?

Banding birds with an individually numbered ring on their leg is a common practice in ornithology to mark and study individual birds. Special permits are required to band birds for scientific study. If the owls were needed in a study, then we would consider banding them, but presently the birds are not part of a study and we do not plan to band them. In order to avoid unnecessary disturbance at the nest, banding nestlings is done only when scientifically warranted.

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How big are the chicks?

When chicks hatch they are just over 1.5 ounces. They gain about half an ounce per day during the nestling period. By the time they fledge they are about 50–75 percent of their adult weight.

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The chick seems hungry. Why haven’t the parents fed it?

As the young grow, they can eat and digest bigger meals, and the parents may stay away from the nest for longer periods of time. In cases of severe food shortages, it’s possible that some young may starve.

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Won’t the babies get smothered from the parents sitting on them?

The parents don’t sit down on the chicks hard enough to smother them. The chicks can breathe even when their parents are brooding them.

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Why is that big one picking on that little one?

This is a natural, well-documented behavior for nestlings of some bird species, including Barred Owls. When food is scarce, aggression may result from competition for food, especially in broods of four or more. Usually the older siblings are bigger and may peck the younger siblings. During food shortages, the older chicks may be the only ones to survive. Sibling aggression usually only occurs during the first 2–3 weeks after hatching.

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When will the chicks leave the nest?

Barred Owl chicks usually fledge 28–35 days after hatching.

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When does the chick get adult plumage?

The downy young begin to molt into their juvenal plumage at six weeks, and this molt can last 5–6 months. This plumage is quite similar to adult plumage, but is browner overall with white bars on the back of the neck, pale bars on the wings, and buffier tail and underparts. By the spring after they hatch, young are indistinguishable from adults.

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Do the parents feed the young birds after they leave the nest?

Barred Owl parents continue to feed their chicks for up to four to five months of age, at which point the young begin to disperse.

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How do the nestlings get water?

While in the nest, the nestlings get water from the prey that they are fed.

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More Facts

Where do Barred Owls live?

Barred Owls live year-round in mixed forests of large trees, often near water. They tend to occur in large, unfragmented blocks of mature forest, possibly because old woodlands support a higher diversity of prey and are more likely to have large cavities suitable for nesting. Their preferred habitats range from swamps to streamsides to uplands, and may contain hemlock, maple, oak, hickory, beech, aspen, white spruce, quaking aspen, balsam poplar, Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, or western larch. Barred Owls can be seen throughout the eastern U.S. and areas of the Northwest, parts of western Mexico, and across the lower territories of Canada. They roost on branches and in tree cavities during the day and hunt by night. Barred Owls will also often take up residence in nest boxes in mature forests. Our NestWatch project has construction plans to build nest boxes appropriate for many species, including one sized for Barred Owls.

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How many Barred Owls are there?

Barred Owls are a widespread species, usually living at a low density in the woods. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of about three million.

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How long do they live?

The oldest known wild Barred Owl was over 18 years old. Captive individuals can live into their twenties and the oldest on record was at least 24 years old.

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What predators are threats to Barred Owls?

The Great Horned Owl is the most serious predatory threat to the Barred Owl and will eat eggs, young birds, and occasionally adults. Northern Goshawks may also kill both adult and juvenile Barred Owls. Barred Owl nests are preyed upon by other large owls and hawks, as well as by climbing mammals, such as large weasels and raccoons.

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What other dangers do Barred Owls face?

As with many other species, changes to the environment can threaten Barred Owl survival. Barred Owls tend to live in older forests and they need large, dead trees for nest sites; these requirements make them sensitive to expansion of logging. Deforestation caused by timber harvesting, agriculture, and urban development have reduced Barred Owl habitat in eastern U.S. and Canada. Logging can also increase openings and cause fragmentation of contiguous forests, which creates habitat more suitable to the aggressive Great Horned Owl. Barred Owls are also killed by car collisions and in traps set for fur-bearing animals. There is evidence that the health of individuals and their ability to reproduce can be compromised due to organochlorines and PCBs.

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Do Barred Owls migrate?

Barred Owls don’t migrate, and most will remain in a single area their whole lives, though on rare occasions they may wander farther in search of food during winters when prey is scarce. In one study of 158 birds that were banded and then found later, none had moved farther than 6 miles away. The absence of migration in Barred Owls may be linked to nest-site limitation.

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Do the young stay in the same area as the parents after they are independent?

There is little information on whether the young stay near their natal nest site. The few existing studies have found young owls as close as half a mile and as far as 1000 miles away from where they hatched.

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Are Barred Owls aggressive? How do they attack?

Barred Owls are very territorial and are aggressive to intruders on their territory, especially during nesting season (particularly the females). These owls will chase away intruders while hooting loudly, sometimes striking with their feet. Barred Owls will also fight each other during disputes at territorial boundaries. When humans interfere with a nest, the parent may flee, perform a noisy distraction display with quivering wings, or may even attack.

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Where can I see a Barred Owl?

Barred Owls are easiest to find when they are active at night—they’re a lot easier to hear than to see. Visit forests near water (big bottomland forest along a river is prime Barred Owl habitat) and listen carefully, paying attention for the species’ barking “Who cooks for you?” call. Try imitating the call with your own voice and then wait quietly. If you’re lucky, a territorial Barred Owl will fly in to investigate. During the daytime, a quiet walk through mature forest might reveal a roosting Barred Owl in a tree, often next to the trunk.

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What can I do to help Barred Owls?

You can help Barred Owls by being a good steward to the environment. Use environmentally friendly products such as cleaners and pesticides. Don’t lure Barred Owls into harm’s way by tossing food out near a road; this attracts rodents and raptors may swoop down to capture prey, only to get hit by vehicles.

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Camera

Does the camera bother the birds?

No, the owls usually ignore the camera.

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How long will the camera stay on?

The camera will stream during the entire nesting season.

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What type of camera is being used?

An AXIS P3364-LVE Network Camera.

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Why is the nest so bright at night?

The new AXIS P3364-LVE Network Camera has an infrared illuminator, and can “see” infrared light. Infrared light is not the same thing as thermal imaging. The view from the camera is not detecting the heat of the owl’s body. What you’re seeing is the infrared light from the camera’s illuminator being reflected off objects in the nest.

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Does the light disturb the birds?

No. Owls cannot see infrared light so the infrared illuminator does not disturb them.

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