I’ll bet many of you didn’t even know we were expecting here at Peace River Wildlife Center. We didn’t know ourselves until Wildlife Center of Venice (WCV) called to ask if we could provide a permanent home for a fledgling barred owl that they had taken in and would not be able to release.
A few months ago, my hero, Kevin Barton of WCV, had performed his magic to re-nest a fallen nestling barred owl. The youngster had been admitted to WCV uninjured and the parents were still onsite at the nest. Kevin was able to climb the tree and plop the baby right back up there where he belonged.
Barred owls, with their distinctive “Who cooks for you?” call, were historically found on the east coast of the U.S., mainly in old-growth forests because they prefer to nest in natural cavities and hollows of mature and dead trees. As this type of habitat becomes scarce, they’ve adapted and will now nest in man-made structures like boxes or steal stick nests built by crows, hawks or even squirrels. They do not migrate and usually spend their entire lives within a six-mile radius. This species has been expanding north and west, into Canada and now down into northern California, where they are pushing northern spotted owls out of their habitat.
Breeding season in Florida is late January to March. Hatchling barred owls are born covered in white fluffy down, which is replaced in nestlings at two to three weeks by a secondary greyish-buff down. At six weeks, the fledglings start to get their adult feathers, beginning on the back, over the scapular or shoulder area. Then the abdomen, flanks, and upper breast get feathers, in that order. By four months of age the head will still be downy. The young barred owl will have complete adult plumage by six months.
By three weeks of age, a baby barred owl is normally moving around the nest and will snap his bill and lie on his back, presenting his talons, if threatened. At four to five weeks, the branching baby will perch on the edge of the nest and climb out onto nearby branches. If he drops to the ground, he can even climb back up his tree or a neighboring one using his talons and beak to dig in, while fluttering his wings to get to lower branches, and will remain there while his parents protect and feed him. The barred owl’s primary predator is the great horned owl, although raccoons can be a threat as well. And sometimes, even with the best of intentions, man can be nature’s worst enemy.
During a re-nesting, we normally ask the homeowners in the area to keep an eye on the baby and let us know if it falls out of the nest again. We will re-nest another time or two, but if it continues to end up on the ground, we assume there is either something wrong with the baby or there are larger siblings that will not allow the smaller one to eat and rest comfortably. I know that feeling, having had an older sister who used her height and weight advantages to torture me throughout our youth.
When WCV heard nothing more about the status of the barred owl, they assumed all was well. Until it wasn’t. At some point, they realized the homeowners were paying a little too much attention to the baby owl. Concerned that the parents weren’t feeding it enough, the people lured the owl down from the tree and fed it ground beef off of their shoes. I have heard some wacky advice people claim to have gotten from the internet, but that was a new one for all of us.
The owlet was taken back into rehab and placed with foster parent barred owls to try to wild him up again. But by then, the damage was done. He was too habituated to people and would never be able to live free. He would not know how to feed himself or associate with members of his own species.
Luckily, PRWC was able to obtain a permit to keep the owl as an education bird. He is currently learning the ropes as a glove-trained bird and will go to outreach events and greet visitors at the Center as soon as he is ready.
We believe his birth date to be in February of this year, making him about 5 months old now. A blood test showed the bird to be a male, so we are in the process of choosing a name for him. So far, we have had a few suggestions:
A little owl stares at a big world. Photo by Josh Olive
Orion—the constellation named after a hunter in Greek mythology.
Rigel—the brightest star in the Orion constellation.
Betelgeuse—(pronounced “beetle juice”) the second brightest star in the Orion constellation and one of the largest stars known (950 times as large as our sun.)
Shakespeare—because he is a barred (bard) owl.
If you have other suggestions, email us at PeaceRiverWildlife@yahoo.com or comment on our FaceBook page.
In the meantime, don’t forget to visit all of PRWC’s residents, who get a little lonely during the summer months. If you have extra time on your hands during the lazy, hazy days of summer, consider volunteering at PRWC. We need habitat cleaners, tour guides, gift shop clerks, and hospital helpers. It’s hot and dirty work, but you never know what will turn up in the course of a day. Around here, we always expect the unexpected.
by Robin Jenkins, DVM
Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a branching barred owl this week. The little guy had fallen out of his nest in a tree cavity at a local park. Observers were watching the family and reported that there were two other babies still in the nest—a clutch size of two to three is normal for barred owls. Our first objective when presented with a baby bird, especially a raptor, is to get the baby back into the nest, if at all feasible, as quickly as possible. We don’t want the parents to leave the area, thinking the baby is gone and not coming back. With two more in the nest, we had a little more time to arrange a re-nesting of this kiddo.
A good thing too, because we needed a little extra time to assess this baby’s health. He came to us with distinct cloudiness in the lenses of both eyes. We don’t see barred owl youngsters as often as great horned owls and screech owls, and we have never observed cloudy lenses in healthy members of those two species. When he first came in, the baby barred owl seemed rather oblivious to us. He did not focus on us and did not track, or follow our hands when waved in front of his face. We were concerned that he may have been blind—a possible reason for him having fallen from his nest.
Barred owls were historically found on the east coast, in old growth forests because they prefer to nest in natural cavities and hollows of mature trees. As this type of habitat becomes scarce, they will now nest in man-made structures like boxes or steal stick nests built by crows, hawks or even squirrels. They do not migrate and usually spend their entire lives within a six-mile area. This species has been expanding north and west, into Canada and now down into northern California.
Hatchling barred owls are born covered in white fluffy down, which is replaced in nestlings at two to three weeks by a secondary greyish-buff down. At six weeks the fledglings start to get their adult feathers, beginning on the back, over the scapular or shoulder area. Then the abdomen, flanks, and upper breast get feathers, in that order. By four months of age the head will still be downy. The young barred owl will have complete adult plumage by six months.
By three weeks of age, a baby barred owl is normally moving around the nest and will snap his bill and lie on his back if threatened, presenting his talons. At four to five weeks, the branching baby will perch on the edge of the nest and climb out onto nearby branches. If he drops to the ground, he can even climb back up his tree or a neighboring one using his talons, beak, and fluttering his wings to get to lower branches and perch there while his parents protect and feed him there. The barred owl’s primary predator is the great horned owl, although raccoons can be a threat as well.
With a raptor at the age of the one presented to PRWC (approximately 3 to 4 weeks) it is vital that we handle the bird appropriately. That is to say, not handle it any more than absolutely necessary. We do not want to habituate this baby, making him associate humans with food or comfort. We want him to fear us and look to others of his own species for all of his needs.
Dr. Salisbury examines the barred owl’s eyes
Within a few days of his admission, the baby barred was scheduled for an appointment with a local veterinary ophthalmologist, Dr. M-A Salisbury, in Sarasota. After a thorough exam, the baby was given a clean bill of health. Dr. Salisbury was able to see that the structures in the backs of his eyes, behind the cloudy lenses, appeared to be normal. By this time, he was tracking and watching us intently, clicking up a storm, talons at the ready to attack if an unsuspecting hand got too close. (It did. Trust me when I tell you, it hurt.) It was determined that any lenticular cloudiness would resolve as the owl matured. So, with the question of his vision answered, the only thing left to do was get him back up into his nest.
This is where we call in our friends at Wildlife Center of Venice. WCV co-founder, Kevin Barton, never disappoints when asked to re-nest a raptor for us. This re-nesting was on the easy side, only about 20 feet up and fairly easily reached with a ladder. Kevin had only to clamber over a few branches from the top of the ladder and tip the baby back into the nest cavity. (See how easy it is for me to say it was easy? I’m not the one trying to wrestle a raptor up a ladder, perched precariously against some spindly tree, with mom and dad dive-bombing my head!)
By the time we gathered our gear and answered questions for the small crowd that had amassed, the baby was another ten feet up the tree. He had sprung right back out of the nest and was climbing up the tree faster than Kevin was climbing down. Something tells me it was his devil-may-care spirit that got this kid into trouble to begin with, not a problem with his vision. Perfect vision aside, he may not live to see adulthood if he doesn’t slow down a little.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Wildlife-1, Gun-Toting Troglodytes-0. I’m not even referring to the recent black bear hunt in Florida. I refuse to slog into that particular morass at this time. Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a barred owl a few weeks ago that had been shot. More than once. On numerous occasions.
The pellet that brought him down hit the ulna, the larger of the two bones in the middle of his wing, and splintered it. Interestingly in mammals the bones of the forelimb are the radius (larger of the two) and ulna (the smaller one). In birds the nomenclature is reversed—the ulna is bigger and the radius is smaller. I doubt that the owl cares about the terminology and it is pretty obvious that the shooter has no regard for anything other than his sanctimonious right to use whatever he wants for his target practice.
There were other pellets imbedded in the wing of this owl, in varying degrees of healing. There was evidence up by his shoulder and at his wrist that he had been shot previously. The tissue surrounding those pellets was in varying degrees of healing and the pellets were too deep to risk removal without potentially causing more damage. If the pellets were close to or in the digestive tract, we would make an effort to remove them, since they could cause a lead toxicity as they break down. But since they are so far removed from the GI tract, there is a greater chance of causing damage to the very delicate sites of the wing joints, and that would render the bird unable to fly and unreleasable—our primary goal.
Luckily, if you can call an owl who has been shot at least three times lucky, his radius was intact. That acted as an internal splint, in conjunction with our external splint and wrap, the wing healed well. Since birds’ bones are hollow they heal much more quickly than mammals’. In less than a month, the owl was able to be returned to his home range. Hopefully he will stay away from the location where he was shot. Or perhaps a visit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Officer to whom this incident was reported (by law) will be effective in educating the offenders that this was a federal violation. While no legal action was taken, a warning was issued. It is our fervent hope that the children (we hope it was children who simply knew no better) have learned a valuable lesson and will never shoot an innocent animal again just for sport.
According to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it is a federal offense to “pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or possess…any migratory bird…or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird.” This is not exactly a new rule. 1918 folks. That was before my mother was born, and I’m pretty sure she rode a dinosaur to work like Fred Flintstone. If a child is old enough to have a gun, he is old enough to understand the rules and laws associated with that privilege. In the immortal words of Graham Nash, teach your children well.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
X-ray of barred owl with multiple pellets in right wing
Conventional Wisdom recommends against mowing first thing in the morning when the grass is still wet. “Ha!” say I. “What do you know, Conventional Wisdom?” I had just gotten done mowing when it started to rain. Victoriously, I thought had I waited, I would have had to mow the grass when it was wet. Oh, wait. I see the potential flaw in my logic there. I am not on speaking terms with the whole Wisdom family.
Luckily I am not the only person who doesn’t always play by the rules. Recently we had gotten a few calls at Peace River Wildlife Center from the Arcadia area. There was a barred owl caught in fishing line in a tree over a pond in Morgan Park, about ten feet out over the water. Numerous people had called, but none were able to get to the bird easily. We work closely with Animal Arc of Arcadia in that neck of the woods. They often help us with rescues and many local people take animals to them as a drop-off point until the injured and orphaned wildlife can be transported to PRWC. We called our friends at Animal Arc, but held out little hope that they could reach the owl either.
While we were frantically trying to locate someone with a boat that could possibly get out to the owl, some intrepid soul took the situation into her own hands. Literally. Brittany Coker was visiting her mother, Jencie Griffis, who happens to live near the Arcadia park. When Brittany saw the owl was suspended upside down, with its head touching the water, she didn’t give her own safety a second thought. She waded right into the pond up to her waist and cut the fishing line that had ensnared the bird. Cradling the exhausted bird to her chest, Brittany rushed him to PRWC where he was treated for exhaustion and possible aspiration pneumonia, since he may have inhaled some of the pond water.
Once the barred owl had dried off and no longer appeared to be in distress, he was placed in an outdoor prerelease cage. We assumed it was a male because of its relatively small size. In most birds of prey species, the females are larger than the males. We monitored this guy for a few days and decided he was ready to be released back out to his home range since he showed no signs of injury or illness.
While we generally recommend using a towel or heavy gloves to handle a large bird, Brittany was luckily uninjured during her encounter with the owl, probably due to the fact that the poor bird was so tired from trying to hold his head above water for so long. Most people are familiar with the dangers pet birds like parrots can pose with their strong beaks. These seed-eating birds can break a person’s finger as easily as they can crack a nut shell. With birds of prey, most of their power is in their razor-sharp talons. Many raptors catch and tear apart their prey using their feet. We teach our rescuers to pay close attention to the feet on these birds, and to cover the head of any bird while handling it to lower the stress for the bird and the risk of injury to the rescuer.
PRWC is always grateful to the public for assisting us with rescues like this one. While we do have a few volunteer rescuers we can call on when the need arises, they are not always in the right area at the right time. Quite often by the time a rescuer gets to the location where an injured animal was last seen, it has moved and cannot be found, or it is too late to save the animal, as could have been the case with this owl. Hats off to Brittany for taking a chance and saving a life. In the words of Thomas Edison, “There are no rules here—we’re trying to accomplish something.”
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Brittany Coker rescues barred owl