As a species known to “mate for life,” birds have really been blowing up their monogamous reputation as of late.
Back in March, PEOPLE reported on a hawk love triangle playing out in a New York City park. Now, National Geographic reports that a highly unusual great horned owl family located in Reno, Nevada, has become a new internet obsession.
After employees at the Desert Research Institute noticed a male and female pair of owls nesting outside their office window, the feathered duo became a welcome sight for the building’s birdwatchers. However, when another female owl showed up one day, began to lay eggs alongside the first lady owl and the male owl hunted and provided for them both, their human audience recognized this was not your average, everyday owl relationship.
According to National Geographic, the females laid a total of five eggs together, approximately a foot apart from one another. Their shared male partner brings back food, such as mice and rabbits, for them both on a regular basis. Christian Artuso, an ornithologist with Bird Studies Canada, tells the magazine that this heretofore unseen behavior is the first documentation of polygyny (a male mating with two or more females) recorded for great horned owls as a species. Not only are they extremely territorial and rarely opt to nest near each another, they’re also long noted as monogamous.
While polygyny has been seen in other owl species, including barn owls and Eurasian eagle owls, it is exceedingly rare, possibly due to the fact that the setup requires a surplus of prey to be obtained for both females by the one male.
Once the office workers realized how unique the owls’ situation was, they set up a webcam (see above) to broadcast the family for curious internet denizens and amateur ornithologists to observe 24/7. It has since become a sensation, especially because when the second female’s eggs failed to hatch, she began to care for the first female’s two healthy owlets, protecting them from the cold or poor weather, as well as hunting mice on their behalf.
Experts believe this may be a case of “misdirected parenting,” where the second female has mistaken the owlets for her own. But, another possible explanation is that that two female owls are actually related, either as sisters or a mother-daughter pair, which could explain their tolerant, if not cozy, relationship. Although the ladies sometimes squabble, all in all, they get along nicely, a few pecking battles notwithstanding.
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“Without determining their genetics, everything is just a guess, ” says David Catalano, an ornithologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, but “to be honest, they’ve co-parented quite well.”
Meanwhile, the owlets are growing up and starting to find their wings. Last week, one jumped out of the nest and off the building ledge, landing safely below. That owlet is still doing well and being fed by its trio of parents. The other owlet will likely leave the nest soon, too. Despite their unusual parentage, the owlets’ behavior is very normal; typical young owls leave the family nest around six to eight weeks, and find a new place to dwell close by.
Experts predict that the owl threesome will likely split up once the kids leave. So, while human couples are rumored to become more sexually explorative once they are empty nesters, it seems to be the reverse for these owls. Only time will tell, but it’s been a hoot for their fans while it lasted.