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Polygamist owls co-parent babies, surprise scientists

Sometimes it takes a village to raise an owlet. Two females and one male great horned owl got together for an unprecedented shared nesting situation.

Two great horned owls sit on a shared nesting site.

Nevada Department of Wildlife

Welcome to Sister Wives: Great Horned Owl Edition. 

A pair of baby great horned owls in Reno, Nevada, are growing up in a fascinating family situation. Two females and one male teamed up to hatch and raise the chicks this spring. What makes this unusual is that great horned owls are famously territorial and monogamous birds.

National Geographic took a closer look at the birds' family life, noting this is the first known instance of these large owls exhibiting polygyny, a zoological term for one male of a species mating with multiple females. 

This Sister Wives behavior is uncommon in owls, though scientists studied a 2013 case of polygyny among barn owls

The birds set up house on the ledge of a building at the Desert Research Institute, which teamed up with the Nevada Department of Wildlife to share a livecam streaming view of the owl nest. To their surprise, researchers saw two females, both of which laid eggs, and one male, which brought back food for the moms.

"To have these two female owls lay eggs less than a foot from each other, in the rocks of a ledge 30 feet above the ground, right against the window of an office is very unique," said Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist David Catalano.  

Only one of the mother owls' eggs hatched and produced two youngsters, but both of the females owls cared for the kids.

Catalano told National Geographic this could be a case of misdirected parenting where one owl mistook the babies for her own. It's also possible the larger female owl is related to the smaller one, making this a case of a grandparent or sister helping to raise the little ones.

One owlet has left the nest already and is doing well. Some online viewers were concerned about the baby owl's welfare, but the Department of Wildlife assured them it has "two very protective mothers looking after it." The other owlet is expected to leave the nest any day now.

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