That bird sanctuary got to me bad, I just looked up whether barn owls are suitable as pets... Apparently they can be tamed and make decent companions, but only if you separate them from their mother before their eyes open (at about 12 days old) and hand-rear them thereafter. If you wait too long, they imprint on their mother and won't behave as tame birds. (More info in the link I tweeted.) That got me wondering—what actually is imprinting, and how does it work?
From what I could find, imprinting is a form of time-sensitive, instinctive learning. The most well-known type is filial imprinting, or young imprinting on their parents. The basic process is newly-born young forming a strong attachment to their parents and mimicking their actions, which quickly teaches them basic survival and social skills. Animals deprived of imprinting are frequently socially awkward and may not recognize other members of their same species, experience sexual attraction to them or engage in basic behaviors with them.
Oddly, imprinting is difficult to control—young will often imprint on the first moving thing they see, whether or not it's their parent. A researcher named Lorenz found that geese would imprint on him if he was present at their hatching, and he even induced one brood to imprint on a model train that moved around a track! Less discouragingly, wild raptors being reintroduced into nature were imprinted upon researchers with yellow coats and honking horns, and then learned migratory patterns by following the researchers as they flew ultralight aircraft (recorded in the documentary Winged Migration). Pretty amazing behavior!
More here: http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-imprinting.htm