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The Potted Owl is waiting for her eggs to hatch

The great horned owl named River has more than 7K followers on social media

River, a Great Horned Owl, built a nest for her two eggs on a residential balcony in West Bend, Wis. Photo courtesy of Christine Moczynski

About a month ago, Christine and John Moczynski got some new neighbors — and it’s completely upended their lives.

Now, when West Bend resident Christine gets home from work as a dental hygienist, she sits in her darkened living room in front of three computer screens and watches the neighbors.

The new couple living outside their door is a pair of great horned owls that have made a nest in a flower pot on the Moczynski’s fourth-floor balcony. The owls’ unlikely decision has charmed their accidental landlords and created a growing online community of fans.

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The female owl, named River by Christine and John, is now tending to two eggs, the first of which is expected to hatch in a matter of days.

“Nobody wants her to have a successful brood off this balcony more than John and I,” Christine said.

Recently, Christine and John watched River and her mate, Oscar, have a six-and-a-half minute conversation.

“What astounded me was all the different sounds that they make. It’s not just ‘Hoot, hoot, hoot.’ They have cackles. Their pitches change,” she said. “I wish I knew how to speak great horned owl because I would love to know what they’re talking about.”

Christine Moczynski watches River sit on her eggs via a video camera installed on her balcony. Margaret Faust/WPR

‘No way!’

What has become a fascination started as a fright. On March 12, Christine noticed a perfect crater carved into the soil of a red flowerpot on the balcony of her condo. She was puzzled but didn’t think much of it.

The next day, she opened the balcony door to get a breeze in her living room. She stepped outside and the next thing she knew, there was an owl in her face.

“Her wings were flapping, and she was screeching and I saw her talons come up. And I was screeching and I jumped back into the house,” Christine said.    

She thought she scared the owl off, but it came back later that night, landing in the flowerpot with a “thump.”

“We thought, ‘No way!’” Christine said.

Working with her husband, the couple turned off all the lights and the TV and crept along the floor for a better look, only to find River staring at them. When she flew off that night for a bite to eat, she left behind her first egg. She laid the second one week later.

“Ever since the 13th, River has been back here, constantly sitting on her eggs, tending to her young, and Oscar shows up once in a while,” Christine said.

Oscar was named by the couple after the Odd Couple character. He brings food to River and watches the nest when she’s away.

The Potted Owl Facebook group

Christine and John wanted to document what they were seeing. They record River and her eggs 24/7 using three cameras, a new computer and three external hard drives they bought for the project.

They told their family, friends and coworkers about their balcony guests.

“We (were) getting so many text messages every single day. Everybody wants updates, and we just couldn’t keep up with it,” Christine said.  

After a rainstorm, Oscar brought River a chipmunk to eat. Video courtesy of Christine Moczynski.

To streamline the process, they started a Facebook group called The Potted Owl. Christine thought 500 people would join the public group to follow along. Now the group has more than 7,000 members, with new people joining every day.

“We’ve had so much fun with it and there’s been so much excitement and people have been so grateful,” Christine said. “That’s kind of what’s pushing us to learn more and want to do more for people and to create this community for everybody.”

They post pictures and videos daily. One recent highlight for viewers was seeing River kick Oscar off the balcony. Facebook followers suspect it’s because he didn’t bring her enough food.

Lifestyle changes to accommodate the owls

Christine and John’s home life looks much different now than it did before the owls showed up.

The lights in the living room are often off and the window shades are drawn. The plants were moved away from the window into their laundry room, which is acting as a makeshift greenhouse. They have stopped vacuuming in parts of the house.

“I don’t want to startle her off her nest. I just want her to be able to be a wild owl and do her thing, with as little stress from us as possible,” Christine said.

Watching the live feeds of the owls is now their primary source of entertainment. Christine’s favorite time to watch is at dusk when they are most active.

Now, they are eagerly awaiting the birth of the owlets.

Christine Moczynski sits on the floor of her living room, watching the three cameras focused on River, the great horned owl nesting on her balcony. Margaret Faust/ WPR

There is a theory that these are the same owl parents who were nesting in the old Lithia Brewery in Washington County. Those owlets died in 2020. People suspect the same pair moved to a tree in Riverside Park that fell over in a storm. If this is the same pair, they are hoping the third time’s the charm.

“The one thing it has shown me is perseverance and the ability to overcome obstacles and tragedies. And their adaptability,” Christine said.

John and Christine have always had an interest in wildlife. But the experience has taught her to be even more conscientious of human encroachment on wildlife.

“Think about the environment around you. We have to share it. It’s not just ours. And we all benefit from it. We all need clean waterways, we all need clean land,” Christine said.