These polygamist owls are baffling scientists for more than one reason

They say it takes a village to raise a child. But whoever “they” are probably meant the phrase to apply to human babies—not little owlets still living in their nests. So imagine scientists’ surprise when they accidentally discovered two great horned owl chicks being raised by a father, a mother… and another mother.

That’s a village indeed, at least for this particular type of owl.

This “polygamist” family was discovered in Reno, Nevada by hydrologist Jim Thomas in a very unusual place. According to National Geographic Thomas came into his office at the Desert Research Institute one morning last February and saw a showdown between some ravens and a pair of great horned owls that had made a nest on a rocky ledge outside the window. Before long a third, female owl showed up and both females then laid five eggs about a foot apart. While they incubated these eggs, the male would fly off to fetch mice, rabbit and other provisions for both his ladies.

It was strange behaviour to be sure; great horns are monogamous creatures that don’t typically play well with others given their territorial nature. Sure, some other birds like your barn owls and Eurasian eagle owls will settle down into polygamist relationships in order to raise their young, but this is the first time observers have seen these raptors doing so. Not only that, but it’s pretty strange for the birds of prey to set up so close to an office building; apparently they may have confused it with a cliff face, which is one of the creature’s preferred nesting places.

Researchers and those tracking the situation at the Institute decided it was too cool not to be shared, so they set up a live webcam that has become something of an Internet sensation.

“It’s a really interesting, bizarre scenario. We’ve got two great horned owls incubating eggs within a foot of each other. A great horned owl will not make their own nest, they will occupy another animal’s nest—a hawk’s nest, a raven’s nest—so for a pair of owls to come in and just lay eggs in the rocks on a ledge 30 feet above the ground right up against a window of an office, it’s very unique,” David Catalano, an ornithologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said in a video on the organization’s Facebook page.

“It’s very interesting as well because we’ve provided an urban area for a lot of wildlife and they’re taking advantage of it. They’re finding opportune locations to breed, to shelter. Knowing this stuff is just going to help us out in the long run.”

What makes the situation even stranger is that while the larger female had no success with her eggs, two of the smaller female’s eggs hatched. Yet both females tended to the young as though they were her own.

There are a few possible explanations as to why, Catalano explained to NatGeo. It could be a case of misdirected parenting, in which the larger owl believed the owlets to be her own. Or these females could also be related—one could be a daughter or they could both be sisters.

“Without determining their genetics, everything is just a guess,” he said. “[The females] get into some pretty good battles, pecking at each other… [but] to be honest they’ve co-parented quite well.”

So well, in fact, that one owlet has already left the nest. It fell a few weeks ago and has been hanging out on the ground ever since. At first the departure caused alarm among those keeping track of the owls, but experts say it’s totally normal behaviour for owlets about six-to-eight weeks and that the other should follow suit soon. Their parents, meanwhile, will continue bringing them food until they’re old enough to fend for themselves. At that point, this little owl anomaly will come to an end.

Or at least until the next magical rocky ledge, we suppose.