Peace River Wildlife Center took in our first young great horned owl of the year this week. Unfortunately it probably won’t be our last. They should issue a roll of duct tape when they send mommy great horned owls home from the maternity ward. Those babies just can’t seem to stay in the nest.
And it doesn’t help that these large owls prefer to nest at the top of the tallest tree in the area. It’s not like they build their own nests there. They are squatters. They “borrow” a nest used by another bird the previous year. Since they breed fairly early in the season, they often get first dibs on the nicest real estate.
In this case, these owls did not choose wisely. By the time their babies were a few weeks old, the nest was gone. We don’t know if a storm blew it apart or it was just too flimsy for such a large family, but when we got there to try to return the fallen baby, there was no sign of the nest. Undaunted, we simply provided a nest substitute (a suitably sized wicker basket) and proceeded according to the plan.
How do these young birds get into such trouble? The average incubation time for the eggs is approximately 30 days. From the first week, the hatchlings will practically double in size each day. At about 6 weeks of age, they start perching on the edge of the nest and walking out onto nearby branches (this is called branching). Within the next week or two, the fledglings will begin to test their capabilities of flight.
Many will stumble and end up on the ground. If they are not hurt and there is no imminent danger, the parents will care for these misplaced babies for a few days until their strengthening wings enable them to flutter well enough to get back up into the lower branches of the tree.
A young great horned owl waiting to be renested.
The youngster we admitted this week is a branchling. His sibling was in place near the top of a very tall pine tree when we arrived to reunite the baby with his family. After a few minutes of preparation, the mother flew in to observe our antics. She was not impressed, but she did keep her distance, sitting at the top of a nearby tree, watching our progress.
I remained in the relative safety of having my feet firmly planted on the ground, while my able-bodied assistant climbed the tree to return the bird. Okay, so I’m no Marlin Perkins and Kevin is not my assistant, but he is quite able-bodied. Kevin Barton is the co-founder and lead rehabber at Wildlife Center of Venice, and he and his staff are invaluable partners to PRWC.
This self-professed Peter Pan would rather be climbing trees and “playing” with animals than sitting in an office shuffling paperwork. Since I get dizzy on 3 inch heels, Kevin handles the high elevations while I talk to the adoring crowds he attracts while engaged in his aerial endeavors.
Kevin shimmied halfway up the tree, not wanting to get too close to the other baby and risk spooking it and having it fall also. While he got into place, I nestled the owlet into a pillowcase and knotted the top. Once the nest basket was secured to a branch, Kevin threw a line down to me. I tied the rope to the pillowcase and he raised the bird up, removed it from the case, and placed it in the basket. Of course, before Kevin was even back on the ground, the young owl was perching precariously on the edge of the basket.
As of this writing, the baby has stayed in his tree, which is not always the case. Sometimes we must return the same baby to the nest or tree two or three times before he stays put or gets old enough to manage on his own. We have even had incidents where the bird beats Kevin to the ground. At last sighting, our little adventurer was even higher in the tree, sitting alongside his sibling.
Occasionally we have a youngster that simply will not stay in his tree. In those instances, or if the baby was injured in the fall or by a predator on the ground, we will keep the baby and raise it in captivity. Here is where our non-releasable resident birds really earn their keep.
PRWC’s resident great horned owls foster displaced youngsters.
Each year, our resident great horned owls are tasked with raising babies that were unable to be returned to their homes. The newly formed family is taken off display and the foster parents feed and care for the youngsters. They teach them how and what to eat in the wild and how to hunt.
Most importantly, they keep the young owls from getting imprinted or habituated to people. If the birds associate people with food, or lose their innate mistrust of people, they will not be able to survive in the wild and cannot be released. When these babies are old enough and have the proper skills to survive in the wild, they are released back in to the area from which they were rescued.
PRWC’s glove-trained education great horned owl, Bella, is an example of what can happen when a young raptor is raised improperly. She was raised at another facility and accidentally imprinted. When they tried to release her, she flew to a crowded neighborhood and swooped down on people expecting them to feed her. The terrified occupants in the area thought they were in an odd Hitchcock remake as a bird with a four-foot wingspan was dive-bombing them. After she was caught, Bella was transferred to PRWC where she was glove-trained and is now one of our most popular education ambassadors. No duct tape required.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
“Callie, smell this owl.”
If your typical day starts with this type of conversation, you might be a rehabber.
Peace River Wildlife Center admitted a great horned owl that was found perched on a front porch rail before dawn. Seeing this is not all that unusual, but when the large bird did not fly off by the time the sun came up, the home owners got concerned and called PRWC.
When the transporter got there, the owl was obviously wet, but otherwise seemed hale and hearty. He was bundled into a carrier and taken to PRWC where he was placed in an outdoor flight cage to recover from the stress of the car ride. After an hour or so, he still appeared to be just as wet. Now that the bird was no longer at risk of shock, he was examined more closely.
The substance that had at first appeared to be merely water turned out to be some sort of sticky substance with a decidedly sweet smell. We occasionally get birds that have fallen into or landed on wet paint or varnish when outdoor projects go awry. We have even seen birds that have fallen into a vat of used fry oil from a restaurant parking lot. But this honey-dipped hooter is a first for us.
Dawn to the rescue. No matter what foreign substances are polluting the feathers of a bird, Dawn dish soap is our most trusted ally in the battle. It can even remove oily petroleum-based contamination which is historically the most damaging to fur and feathers and difficult to remove.
The owl was given two baths on his first day at PRWC. Warm water and diluted Dawn helped sluice the brown contaminant right off the bird, along with a little of his dignity. Generally feisty birds, this great horned owl seemed rather resigned to his fate. On the second day, he had one more bath and was finally beginning to look his normal perky (and fluffy) self. After a few more days of confinement to be sure his waterproofing hadn’t been too damaged, he was ready for release. We arranged to take him back to the neighborhood where he had been found.
It is always a challenge to get a large bird in a kennel for transport—way too many moving parts. With raptors, you want to start by controlling the feet. Feet in one hand, left wing controlled by your body, right wing under your other arm, you are ready to place the now-frantic owl in a little plastic box with an even tinier door. Extend one finger to swing the kennel door open and you lose the right wing. Get that back under control and halfway in the kennel and the left wing shoots out to the side. Getting a 60-inch wingspan through a 12-inch door is always a challenge. Eventually the entire bird gets stuffed into the kennel and all folded up, he fits quite nicely.
The next step –getting the bird back out of the kennel—can be even worse, especially if there are witnesses. You would think the frightened bird would want to flee the confines of the carrier as soon as the door opens, but you would be wrong 99% of the time. Getting the bird into the kennel involved folding his wings, feet and tail to his body and introducing them through the doorway.
Getting him out while he is cowering in the back of the kennel necessitates getting both of your arms, covered by thick leather gloves, up to your shoulders into the kennel, one on each side of the bird. And pull. The entire kennel moves with you. Prop your feet on the sides of the kennel to hold it in place. The bird extends his wings as much as the kennel sides will allow and there is no way that massive thing is getting through that tiny door again. It’s like trying to put toothpaste back in a tube, but in reverse.
That is what I was prepared for when releasing Mr. Sticky. The observers had their cameras ready, although I cringe to think what the pictures of me would look like sitting on the ground trying to pry an owl out of a box. I reached for the door latch and he charged at me. Unusual. I disengaged the latch and he rushed the door so hard he almost knocked me over. He flew off straight and high as we all stood there looking at each other.
“You get any pictures?”
“Didn’t even get a chance to raise my camera.”
Another successful rehab and release. If you are thrilled by the mere fact that you were able to do your job and not look like a complete fool in front of spectators, you might be a rehabber.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Great horned owl drying off after his bath
We often get calls at Peace River Wildlife Center from frantic folks requesting that we do something to help an injured or orphaned wild animal. Once an animal has been transported to PRWC, the rehabilitation specialists can treat the injured, ill and orphaned. We do what we can for every animal in distress, but are sometimes limited in our ability to leave the Center to go on rescues ourselves, leaving all of the critical patients in the hospital unattended. Some of our favourite callers do not demand that we do something, they want to know what they can do.
George and Betty Phillips are new to the Port Charlotte area. When a recent storm dislodged a great horned owl nest from the top of a tree, the Phillips found a very large baby bird on the ground in their back yard. Uncertain what to do, they called PRWC—always the right answer to the “What now?” question.
Operations manager, Callie Stahl, lead the Phillips through a series of questions to ascertain what the situation was. She then gathered the necessary gear and went to their house to check on the baby. Luckily he was not injured, but he was too young to be on the ground. The parents were still in the area, but would not be able to get the youngster back up into the tree by themselves. Since the nest was destroyed and had been located at the top of a very tall tree, a make-shift nest was constructed using a donated plastic laundry basket. Holes were drilled into the bottom to allow rain to pass through. A cushion of grass and twigs were placed in the basket for the baby to grasp onto. The basket was then screwed into the tree at the highest point possible and the baby was placed in his new “nest.”
All of this was accomplished under the stern gaze of two very concerned adult great horned owls. If you ever felt intimidated by having a strict teacher looking over your shoulder while you completed an assignment, you may have an inkling of what it feels like to have your progress monitored by some of Mother Nature’s fiercest predators. But these disciplinarians have talons instead of rulers.
The great renesting escapade of the great horned owl was a success. Although the baby did not stay in the “nest” long, he has branched out into the tree where he was placed, as expected. Fledgling song birds will naturally spend some time on the ground as they grow flight feathers and strengthen their wing muscles in preparation for full flight. Their parents will attend them on the ground, assisting with feeding and driving off predators. Raptors, like great horned owls, do not usually spend time on the ground. They do what is called “branching,” as the fledglings leave the nest and grip the branches of the tree in which their nest is located. As they get stronger and bolder, they wander farther and farther away from the nest, eventually hopping from branch to branch, until finally taking flight.
PRWC would like to join a grateful great horned owl family in welcoming the Phillips family to Charlotte County and thank them for their invaluable assistance in rescuing this young fledgling. It is always a pleasure to work with people who are concerned about the environment and willing to go the extra mile to help out wildlife.
by – Robin Jenkins, DVM
I have the perfect job for someone who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Unfortunately I don’t think I had ADHD before I started working at Peace River Wildlife Center. Between the constantly ringing telephones; visitors peeking into the office to get change or see Bella, our glove-trained great horned owl, sitting on the desk chair; medical rounds on the residents; and emergencies when injured patients come in— it is almost impossible to finish a thought, much less a sen
tence. Sorry about that. I just got a call from a frantic person who had found an injured bird but couldn’t bring it to us. Sixteen phone calls later, I finally found someone who can pick up the bird and transport it to PRWC for treatment. I got a phone call similar to that one the other day as I was leaving my house to go to work. There was an owl stuck in a fence off of a road near my house. (Or so I thought.) Funny thing is this particular road is a long one. I was aware of the portion of the road east of Taylor, but what I didn’t realize is that the road runs for miles south and west to Cape Coral. So what I thought was going to be a quick detour on my way to work, turned into an adventure. It always does.
My original supposition of the rescue was of an eastern screech owl caught in goat fencing, since the area where I envisioned the episode taking place has just such livestock. Unfortunately by the time I got to where the incident was unfolding, it was a great horned owl caught in some of the thickest barbed wire fencing I have ever seen. Luckily I had everything I needed to assist the imprisoned avian—well, everything except a means to release him. I did not have a wire cutter strong enough to cut the fence. Nor did I have the homeowner’s permission and they were not in evidence on the property. (I may have overlooked that minor detail had I been properly equipped. After all, they did call in the situation.)
My bag of tricks included a towel and a pillowcase. I had tried to use the pillowcase to cover the bird’s head. Normally when working with any bird, if you can cover their eyes, they remain much calmer. This particular bird was not particularly frantic by the time I arrived. He seemed to take my ministrations in stride. After I had gently placed the pillowcase over his head three times, only to have him gently shuck it right back off, we agreed to disagree on that point. He obviously wanted to watch what I was doing. Maybe in case he ever found himself in this predicament again?
With my thick leather gloves, I held the bird’s feet in my left hand to support his weight. He had been dangling by the skin of one wing that had gotten wrapped around one of the multi-pronged barbs of the top rail of the fence, probably while chasing some prey in the early morning hours before dawn. I tried to pull the skin off of the barb, but it was inextricably wound around the four distinct prongs. And since I only had one hand with which to work, that effort was quite ineffective.
I had to go back to my car and get another tool, but I didn’t want to leave the owl dangling by his wing again. I wrapped the towel around the lower rail of the fence, so the barbs wouldn’t hurt his feet, and tried to coax his feet to grasp the perch. He seemed to catch on pretty quickly. He let go of my hand, I let go of his talons, and he perched on the towel. For all of two seconds. As soon as I turned toward my car, he pulled the “dead man’s flop.” Our own Bella is well known for this maneuver too. If she is not getting her way, she will throw her head back and go limp. Very similar to a two-year-old child throwing a temper tantrum, and just as frustrating for the parental units.
I retrieved a knife from my car and proceeded to free the tender skin that was wrapped around the fence barb. I sliced through it easily enough and I bundled the injured owl into a kennel and transported him to PRWC. The tender skin of his wing’s patagium had two distinct holes. This delicate skin that connects the bird’s wing to his shoulder is vital for flight, especially when feeding by diving onto prey sighted from a high perch. If this skin does not heal well enough for the bird to fly, he may need to be placed as an education bird. Hopefully it will not come to that.
This great horned owl is at PRWC recovering from his misadventure. Like all of the rehab animals that we hope to release after their recovery, he is not on display to the public. PRWC does however have over 100 other birds on display that cannot be released due to their inability to care for themselves in the wild. Visit us seven days a week from 11a.m. to 4p.m. to learn more about southwest Florida’s native wildlife. We are open from 8a.m. to 5p.m. for injured animal intake.
by–Robin Jenkins, DVM
Whooo doesn’t want to be in this cage?