Peace River Wildlife Center admitted an eastern screech owl this week when her nest was destroyed. The landscapers that had been hired to cut down a dead palm saw a woodpecker fly out of a hollow in the trunk when they started to cut. A little while later, an eastern screech owl flew out of another hollowed-out area and ,in her panic, hit their parked truck. Thankfully, they immediately brought the injured owl to PRWC, where she was treated for head trauma. Their quick thinking saved her life.
Hollowed areas in dead palms and tree limbs are common locations for woodpeckers, screech owls, and other songbirds to make their nests, which is a very good reason for not cutting them down. If the dead and dying plants do not have a potential to damage property if and when they fall, please consider leaving them in place. I have had dead cabbage palms in my yard for many years before they finally got so frail that they fell of their own accord. And by that time, they were so hollow and light I could move them myself. In the meantime, I witnessed several generations of birds use these natural habitats to raise their families.
Our patient is an adult female. We know because she has a brood patch, a featherless area of skin on her underside. This area has many blood vessels close to the surface of the skin to transfer her body heat to help incubate the eggs. She had at least two eggs that were crushed during the tree trimming. This is probably why she waited so long before fleeing the nest and why she was so disoriented when she did attempt to fly away.
Many birds exhibit a brood patch when breeding. It can be on the female or male bird, or both, depending on which parent does the brooding or incubating of the eggs. The male screech owl provides food to the female while she is sitting on the eggs and caring for the newly hatched youngsters. As the nestlings get a little older, Dad might feed them directly, but most of his time is spent providing food to Mom, who in turn feeds the babies.
While she was a patient at PRWC, our screech owl was apparently displeased with the provided accommodations. I suppose she had the right to be in a bad mood, having lost her home and children. But she really drove home the point that broody means not only incubating eggs, but being thoughtful and unhappy. I don’t know how thoughtful she was, but she was decidedly unhappy about being in captivity, everything we tried to feed her, and life in general for a few days.
Luckily for this little mama, she recovered quickly from her mild head trauma and was returned to the area from which she was rescued. It is still early in the nesting season for screech owls, so she and her mate have time to find a new nest site and start over. Hopefully they will have better luck with their new home.
Please think twice before trimming and removing trees that may provide nesting spots for birds and small mammals. If your Home Owner’s Association demands it, consider having more nature-friendly rules put in place. And be sure to hire tree trimmers and landscaping services that are familiar with our native flora and fauna and know the appropriate way to deal with both.
Be sure to attend PRWC’s final Sunset Celebration of the season, this Friday, March 17, 2017 from 5-7p.m. We will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in style and you will have the chance to see the birds in a whole new light.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Peace River Wildlife Center lost one of our favourite residents this past week. An adult female eastern screech owl, imaginatively named Screech, passed away. She had been in declining health for over a year and recently took a turn for the worse, resulting in a rapid decline and her ultimate death.
Screech was one of PRWC’s first education birds. Former volunteer Maryann Sakamoto, a retired public teacher and principal, started taking Screech to Fisherman’s Village to talk to visitors there and point them in the direction of PRWC in case they were unaware of our existence—and most of them were at that time. This program has become one of PRWC’s most successful outreach opportunities. During season, our volunteers go to Fish’ville every Tuesday with different education birds and introduce tourists, residents and shoppers to the wonders of PRWC and our visitor numbers soar on those days.
Not only did Screech (with a little help from Maryann!) kick off an effective outreach program, but she was one of our most prolific foster mothers. We often get young screech owls that have been displaced from their nests. This can be a result of bad weather, tree trimming, sibling rivalry, a dog or cat attack, or any number of perils that can befall a young bird. Our initial response is to re-nest these youngsters. If we cannot do so due to an injury or inability to locate the nest or parents, the baby birds are raised in captivity until they are ready to be released.
One of the biggest challenges with hand rearing raptors is their intelligence. If they get accustomed to being fed by humans, they lose their innate distrust and fear of people. This is called habituation and is extremely detrimental to their life in the wild. In order for us to feed, medicate and clean members of these species, we have to hide our appearance with puppets, gloves and face shields. You might think it is no easy feat to try to get a bit of chopped food into the dodging and weaving beak of a tiny raptor with a curtain of mesh over your eyes. You would be wrong. It is not difficult. It is almost impossible.
Enter our saviours—foster parents. A number of the permanent resident birds at PRWC serve as foster parents for conspecific babies (those of the same species), thus making our lives easier and providing enrichment for the adult birds as well. Screech was one of our most prolific foster mothers. She and her mate, Romeo, were taken off display every spring and placed in a habitat where they would raise orphaned screech owl babies. From hatchlings, to nestlings, to fledglings—this dynamic team has raised an average of 20 babies each year, who go on to be successfully released thanks to the care and guidance of their foster parents.
Screech was admitted to PRWC on 03/17/2008 after having been found by a concerned citizen on the side of a road in Port Charlotte late tin he evening before. This brave lady took the injured owl home overnight and brought it to PRWC first thing the next morning. Unfortunately, Screech’s eye had suffered damage and she was not releasable. Screech owls often fly low over the ground after mice. If the mice are scurrying around fields or lawns, no problem (for the owl.) But too often rodents hang out at the edges of roadways feeding on litter thrown from vehicles—Little Debbie wrappers, french fries, grease-soaked napkins and fast food bags. As the owl’s presence spooks the mouse, it darts into the road with the owl following it. If there is a car passing by at the time, the owl can hit the side of the car and get stunned or worse, since it is so focused on its prey and paying little heed to its surroundings. We frequently see head and eye trauma, as well as fractured bones resulting from these incidents.
Screech settled in quickly to life in captivity with us at PRWC. She became quite the fixture and all of the staff, volunteers and visitors fell in love with her. Her right eye had been damaged from her injury. Over the past few years she had been gradually losing sight in her left eye also, as a cataract formed there. Last year she raised over 20 babies for us over the course of a few months. This year she had just finished raising 13 babies and we had placed her back in her display habitat when we noticed her rapid decline. She had appeared hale and hearty as she taught her young charges how to eat and remain wary of predators.
We are grateful to Screech for assistance rendered over the years in raising productive, young, releasable owls and also for helping us to educate more people about the wonders of native Florida wildlife. As an adult on admission in 2008, Screech was at least nine years old when she passed and possibly even older. In the wild the life expectancy of a screech owl is three years. Many of her fans have asked about contributing to a fund in her honour, the proceeds of which will go toward the new screech owl habitat to be built at the new PRWC facility in early planning stages now. For more information or to donate, contact PRWC at 94-637-3830 or go to our donate page on the web site.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM