FORT COLLINS - Area wildlife experts are asking the public to show restraint and give a family of nesting great horned owls in Fort Collins space and privacy.
The owls have become somewhat of a tourist attraction to residents and passers-by alike near Carpenter and Timberline roads, causing traffic backups and endangering animals and humans in the process, said Michael Tincher, rehabilitation coordinator at Rocky Mountain Raptor Program in Fort Collins.
Tincher said the constant disruption of the owls' natural cycle - great horned owls are nocturnal raptors that should be inactive during the day - is making the animals agitated, affecting the natural growth and learning cycles of the immature owlets in the nest. He said it could result in death if humans don't give the raptors room to breathe. The owls have been "far more active" than they should during the day due to continued disruptions, he added.
The immature owls are beginning to "branch" from the nest onto tree branches but cannot fly at this time. Great horned owls are "incredibly dependent" on their parents for most of their first spring and summer, Tincher said.
"Those kids can't go anywhere yet," Tincher said. "If they get separated, they'll starve to death."
One of the immature owls has already fallen from the nest, which borders a main road. Rocky Mountain Raptor Program was called to the scene and had to help move the bird back to the nesting area.
"Any misstep could cause them to fall out of the tree," Tincher said. "One of those owls falling out on the middle of Timberline could be a death sentence."
Tincher said he has seen passers-by come right under the nest to take pictures, use a branch to hit the tree and get the owls' attention, and clog the intersection.
The young owls' parents are becoming increasingly agitated and could attack if they perceive human onlookers as a threat.
"They will defend their children," he said. "They're letting out their alarm calls, and that means they're very, very agitated."
Great horned owls are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Act. Onlookers could be ticketed for harassment if they don't give the owls a wide berth, said Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokeswoman Jennifer Churchill.
Churchill said anyone taking photographs of wildlife should always use a long lens and be far enough away that an animal won't notice.
"Keep your distance," she said. "If you change an animal's or bird's behavior by your presence, you're too close. Enjoy our wildlife from a distance. We want to keep them wild."
Sarah Jane Kyle is the Coloradoan reporter covering nonprofits, volunteerism and philanthropy. Follow her on Twitter @sarahjanekyle or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/reportersarahjane.