Peace River Wildlife Center is a wildlife rehabilitation facility. Our primary mission is to treat and release injured an orphaned wildlife. Secondarily, we strive to educate people about native Florida wildlife. Animals that will be released are not legally permitted to be on display to the public, but there are those that come in too severely injured to ever be placed back into the wild. Missing a wing or an eye, these individuals would not be able to care for themselves and so are provided a permanent home, in educational habitats, where they are on display to visitors.
We see over 2,000 injured and orphaned birds, mammals, and reptiles each year. Our resident numbers vary somewhat as we transfer to and from other facilities, but average over 100. None of these residents is more unique and iconic than Luna the white eastern screech owl. We often describe Luna as leucistic, or in simpler terms that most people have heard previously, albino.
An albino has a lack of melanin, the pigment that appears as black/brown colour; although the cells that produce it, melanocytes, are still present. Some albino animals (snakes, fish, turtles, etc.) are pale yellow or orange because they have different pigments being produced other than black and brown.
Luna and Ruby, a red morph eastern screech owl
Leucistic individuals lack the cells that make all pigment because they are all derived from a single source in embryonic development, and hence have no colour at all. This lack of pigment can occur throughout the body or may be localized, occurring in patches, also known as pied or piebald.
An albino’s eyes will appear pink or red due to the lack of pigment in the iris. The blood vessels behind the eye are usually masked by the coloured iris, but their reddish hue is seen behind the colourless iris in an albino. A leucistic animal will usually have normally coloured eyes because the pigment cells in the iris are derived from a different progenitor cell, directly within the eye.
In the case of screech owls, those eyes are bright yellow. Luna’s eyes are as unique as he is. While there is no bright yellow colour in his irises, his eyes appear dark. When seen in direct sunlight, his eyes are deep red due to the visibility of the blood vessels at the back of his eyes.
The prevalence of albinism has been estimated in some species at 1 in 20,000. The chances of complete leucism are estimated at more like 1 in 100,000. It is difficult to ascertain the number of wild animals with these conditions because the usually do not survive long.
Luna’s baby picture, with 2 grey morph nestlings
Back in April of 2013 when the white screech owl nestling originally presented, PRWC rehabilitators tried to find his nest in order to return him to it. We went back out to the Charlotte Harbour Environmental Center (CHEC) where he was found on the ground behind the visitor’s center. There was no evidence of a screech owl’s nest anywhere in the vicinity. He may have fluttered out of the nest as fledglings often do when they are first stretching their growing wings. It is even possible that the parents and maybe even the siblings of this bird intentionally kicked him out of the nest to prevent him from drawing attention to the young family.
Being such a tiny bird of prey, the screech owl’s main advantage is its camouflage. Their bark-coloured feathers allow them to blend into the tree in which they are perching.
As he grew and started to perch on the edge of the nest, he was a beckoning white flag waving to nearby predators, “We surrender! Come eat us!” This little marshmallow would quickly become the component of some predator’s s’more if left on his own.
Since this little guy’s chances of long term survival in the wild were slim, he became an education ambassador at PRWC. Education ambassadors are permanent resident animals, those with injuries so severe they cannot be released back into the wild, that go to classrooms, festivals, and other venues to give people a hint at what happens at PRWC and to provide an up-close experience with some of the beautiful wildlife we have in southwest Florida.
Saturday, April 1 we will be celebrating Luna’s 4th birthday with a party in his honour at the Center. If you would like to bring a gift, he requests items for his “brothers and sisters” like raw eggs, shelled walnuts, and plastic containers. With baby squirrel season in full swing, PRWC is seeing an abundance of young squirrels and one of the first things they start to eat when weaning is walnuts. We use cooked and raw eggs in many different diets for our residents and patients, including shorebirds, songbirds, raccoons, and opossums. If you are lucky enough to be in the area, stop by to wish Luna a happy birthday. If you are not near-by and want to send a gift, check out the PRWC web site or our Amazon Smile wish list for direct links to much needed supplies.
Visit Peace River Wildlife Center on April 1st to wish Mother Nature’s April Fool’s present to us a happy birthday. Or check us out any day from 11am to 4pm, when our talented tour guides can show you around and introduce you to all of our residents. If you’re not careful, you may learn something new.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
We often talk about the number of animals we see at Peace River Wildlife Center. Let’s look at the number of people that impact and are impacted by PRWC. By rough estimate, we have approximately 90,000 visitors each year coming to the Center to tour our permanent residents’ habitats and learn more about native Florida wildlife. Other people that we see are a result of outreach programs at schools, civic organizations, and community events.
PRWC’s mission is to rehabilitate orphaned, injured, and ill native Florida wildlife and get the healthy individuals back out into the wild. Our secondary mission is to educate the people living in and visiting this area how to peacefully coexist with the abundance of wildlife with which we are fortunate enough to share this little corner of paradise.
While the rehab staff consists of a few highly trained, not-so-highly paid rehabbers and technicians, the rest of PRWC’s staff comprises volunteers from all walks of life. More than 100 people a year give their time, their hearts, and often their own money to help keep PRWC open, clean, and operating smoothly. Even our paid staff members can be considered volunteers if one realizes that they could be making significantly more money in the private sector than working for a small non-profit.
Wednesday, February 23, 2017 is the day we celebrate and thank our staff (both volunteers and employees) with a special dinner in their honour, immediately following our annual membership meeting. If you are a member of PRWC or are unsure of your status and would like to attend the annual member meeting, call PRWC to get details.
Originally scheduled for Trabue, the event had to be changed at the last minute when it was decided that the wonderfully unique restaurant would be closed and turned into yet another Italian eatery. Just what downtown Punta Gorda needs—another place to get a bowl of soggy noodles in a pool of ketchup. (In case you couldn’t tell, I am not a fan of Italian food.)
So, we celebrate our volunteers. We thank them for cleaning every cage and habitat every day. They scrub, scoop, and rake. They chop food, wash laundry, and sweep floors. They provide tours, man the gift shop, and answer phones. They rescue injured animals, pick up donated items, and go to outreach events.
They are hospital aides, tour guides, gift shop clerks, maintenance engineers, cleaners, board members, office staffers, rescuers, outreach reps, and home care techs. This amazing little army keeps PRWC running and has been responsible for some of the major changes and improvements over the years. Without them we could not function on a daily basis and could not provide the level of care that we do to our patients and resident animals.
Thanks to our staff of volunteers and employees, Trip Advisor has rated PRWC as the #1 Thing To Do in Punta Gorda. We get visitors from all over the county, state, country, and world. Many of them come to see our star attraction, Luna, the leucistic (albino) owl.
Speaking of Luna, PRWC is having our first annual bluegrass festival as a fundraiser coming up. LunaFest will be Saturday, March 4, starting at 1p.m. at the Punta Gorda History Park. Featuring three well-known area bluegrass bands, LunaFest tickets are only $10 each and due to the intimate nature of the location, a limited number will be sold. Food and drinks will be available onsite. You are encouraged to bring your own chairs. For tickets and more information go to www.peaceriverwildlifecenter.org or call 941-637-3830.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM
Mac feeds the resident pelicans
BOD president Pat cleans cages
Be careful what you wish for…you just might get it. Peace River Wildlife Center recently celebrated our 34th anniversary and the 3rd birthday of Luna, our loveable little leucistic (albino) screech owl. Sharing the adorable cupcakes baked by a couple of PRWC’s wonderful volunteers, Luna requested that people coming to the Center to celebrate his birthday, bring eggs for his friends in lieu of gifts for himself. That was probably for the best, since he is partial to dead mice. Many people would prefer not to carry dead mice around. And I have it on good authority that the grocers at Publix look at you funny when you ask where the dead mice aisle is.
Luna was admitted to PRWC as a three-week old fledgling in the third week of April of 2013. We assigned him a birthday of April 1st. He was Mother Nature’s April fool’s joke, but the joke is on her because he is happy, healthy and well-loved here at PRWC. A little too well-loved maybe. We go through at least two dozen eggs a day— feeding cooked eggs, a great protein source, to many of our patients and residents. During baby bird season (gearing up right now, as we speak) we can go through twice that amount. So when the eggs started streaming in for Luna’s birthday, we were thrilled.
To say that we have a bit of a storage problem is like saying the Titanic had a bit of an iceberg problem. We received over 100 dozen eggs in the week surrounding Luna’s party. And while we are extremely grateful for the donations, we are also pretty darned sick of eggs right now. The eggs that we are unable to use before they expire have to be cracked into plastic containers, the yolks broken, and frozen until we need them. We had plenty of extra volunteers on hand to help with these tasks the day of the party, but we ran out of containers. And room in our on-site freezers.
Our stalwart volunteers cracked the remaining eggs into baggies and the plan was for me to take them to an off-site storage facility where we have a couple more freezers into which I could stow them. (The eggs, not the volunteers. People get funny when you try to “stow” them.) Now I have never been the kind of person who demands only brand name merchandise. I didn’t wear Izod polos as a child. I have never tried on a pair of Jimmy Choos. My purse is not D&G (Dulce&Galbanna), but KCD (Kmart Clearance Department.) But I do have a serious bone to pick with the generic ziplock baggie people who apparently did not get the memo that some people would prefer the tops of their product not pop open randomly. And I also now have the remnants of a couple dozen raw eggs soaked into the carpet of my car. That’s going to smell really good in a few days.
When I finally got the bagged eggs to the storage building, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to stack them into the freezer as planned. The slippery little devils would not lie flat or sit up on end. And the tops of the bags kept popping open. A quick trip to my favourite designer boutique, Walmart, was in order. I needed more plastic storage containers and I needed them tout de suite. That’s French for “yesterday.” (I apparently neither wear nor speak French.)
As I got closer to the store, I saw a sheriff’s deputy pulled over to the side of the road. His lights were flashing, but there wasn’t another car there. Uh oh. I peered around the front of his vehicle and saw he had pulled up to a lump on the shoulder of the road, protecting it from further injury. I swerved in just as my phone started to ring. It was the dispatcher reporting the incident. I told her I was on scene, but she kept giving me more information. I guess the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office is just not used to transporter technology. Another sandhill crane had been hit by a car on deadly Jones Loop Road. She was bundled into the back of my car and taken to PRWC were she unfortunately passed away due to the spinal trauma she had suffered.
Having taken care of that emergency, I was back on Mission Crack Up. Whether that refers to the eggs or my sanity, only time will tell. I finally got the eggs transferred to containers and stashed in the freezers. I cleaned my car as best I could. With an hour or so before sunset, it was finally time to grab a bite of breakfast and relax. So how did you spend your day off?
by – Robin Jenkins, DVM
Luna, the birthday boy
Miles hand crafted a birthday card for Luna
Michelle O’Connor made Luna a basket
This past week, we had the pleasure of attending the 2nd Annual Raptor Fest at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, or what I am now calling “Comic Con for Raptor Lovers.” ‘We’ are the crack team from Peace River Wildlife Center who loaded our vehicles and drove from Punta Gorda to St. Petersburg bright and early in the morning. Luna, our famous white screech owl, and Hootin’ Annie, the great horned owl, were accompanied by PRWC tour guide and Annie’s amazing handler John Hime, dedicated family member and volunteer for the day Susan Rhoads, wildlife rehabbers Amy Rhoads and Cara Brown, and myself-Anne Marie Witkowski, office administrator.
To back up a bit, we were excited for this event since Amy, Cara and I met some of the Boyd Hill volunteers and bird handlers at the Sarasota Medieval Fair last year. The fact alone that the volunteers were in period dress was enough to intrigue us, but we also soon learned that this dedicated group is extremely knowledgeable and experienced in their field. After we bombarded them with questions for far longer than their gracious responses called for, they told us about this upcoming event. This is also when we learned that Luna was way more famous than we knew about. You see, they had heard about him but not us, much to our dismay. As are many in the bird world, they were skeptical at first about whether or not we truly had found a white screech owl since screech owls normally have grey, brown, or red plumage for camouflage in trees and they have bright yellow eyes. Luna obviously does not have either of these colorings. He is leucistic. Leucism, for those of you who don’t read Doctor Robin’s articles regularly, is a condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents multiple types of pigment, including melanin, from being properly deposited on the bird’s feathers, skin, eyes, beak, and nails. In Luna’s case, he also does not have the trademark yellow eyes. Once the Boyd Hill team learned that PRWC in fact did have a leucistic bird, they became excited and hoped that they would have a chance to see him at their event.
We slightly underestimated just how enthusiastic people would be to meet Luna. We already knew how many people come from all over the world to meet Luna at PRWC and other outside events, but we (maybe Doctor Robin has experienced the Luna phenomenon) never knew how bird “nerds” (an expression of love, I promise) en masse would react. The moment we drove up to our table to unload our gear, Luna became surrounded by his adoring fans. It was like Comic Con for Raptors and Luna was Leonard Nimoy (Spock from Star Trek for those not in the know) moving among his admirers. People literally came out of the trees to meet our star. The Boyd Hill volunteers and other bird enthusiasts from local Audubon Societies and other raptor experts flooded our table. They were thrilled to see Luna and were extremely pleased to also meet Annie, whom I believe now has an entourage of her own. They should get Facebook pages. The event opened to the public and the Raptor paparazzi arrived with their telescopic lens, which surely has now made Luna look to be the size of the giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters.
Luna and Annie were not the only stars of the day. There were several local falconers and EarthQuest – an amazing organization that specializes in raptor educational programs, environmental exhibitors, rehabilitators from all over Florida, exhibitors such as local Audubon Societies, the Sierra Club, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and so many more. Remarkable raptors such as the Eurasian Eagle Owl, Harris’s Hawks, Red Tailed Hawks, a Short Tailed Hawk, a Finnish Goshawk, Red Shouldered Hawks, Great Horned Owls, Screech Owls, a Black Vulture, and an Amazing Andean Condor named Storm were present. EarthQuest and some of the local falconers participated in free flight demonstrations and discussed the revitalization of the Condor, a bird that once was on the brink of extinction. The sheer size of this New World vulture was mind boggling, and I admit I slightly feared for her handler. But I should not have feared, her handler was extremely experienced (as is essential for a falconer of any kind to be– experience and licensed!) and Storm was the ideal student.
Remember what I said about needing experience? That is paramount. I have to say a frightening number of people visiting our table said, “How can I get a screech owl. I want one.” I will gently remind everyone that wild birds are just that – wild. It requires skill, education, and several licenses (both state and federal) to ‘own’ a wild bird or wild animal of any variety. Educational birds are mostly birds that have been sick or injured and not releasable or birds that are available to licensed falconers and educators. Please do not take one home to raise yourself. If you find a sick, injured or truly abandoned bird or other wildlife life please contact a local rescue center or licensed wildlife trapper. Lecture over.
There was a schedule of activities throughout the day of the event. We would like to thank the overwhelming group of people who came to listen to Cara and John’s discussion about Luna and Annie. Numerous people stopped by our table after to ask more questions and learn about Peace River Wildlife Center in general. Many said that they would come down to Punta Gorda and visit us in the future. We certainly hope to see them here and bring a friend – or ten!
Thank you to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve and all the volunteers who made the event so great. It was very well organized and obviously a labor of love. We hope to attend again next year.
by – Anne Marie Witkowski
Paparazzi hounding Luna at Raptor Fest
Luna chilling at Raptor Fest
Andean condor, Storm, at Raptor Fest
By now everyone familiar with Peace River Wildlife Center knows about our leucistic eastern screech owl, Luna. He was admitted as a fledgling that had fallen or gotten pushed out of his nest at a mere 2-3 weeks of age. We initially raised him with other screech owl chicks, but the decision was made to keep him as a resident for his own safety and the glove-training process was started. His lack of normal colouration made him incapable of camouflage that is vital a defense mechanism against his predators.
Eastern screech owls are normally found with one of three colour variations called phases or morphs. They can be red, brown, or grey. The feathers are mottled with one of those colours and cream and black striations. The overall effect allows the bird to blend in with the bark of the tree branches where it is perching, hiding from predators and prey alike.
Our little Luna is leucistic, a genetic abnormality that caused the melanocytes, cells that produce colour, to be absent. Usually in an albino animal or bird, the melanocytes are still there; they just do not produce melanin, the black/brown pigment, but can still produce other colours, such as red, yellow or orange. Even more unusual for a leucistic animal, Luna does not have normally coloured eyes. A screech owl’s eyes are yellow. Luna’s eyes appear dark, but in bright sunlight the deep red of the underlying blood vessels can be seen through the colourless irises.
Now Luna has a “little” sister. Bella is a great horned owl that presented to PRWC after having been unintentionally imprinted by the people who rescued her as a fledgling. They tried to release her but after weeks in the wild, she kept flying down to people to be fed, and was eventually brought to PRWC. This type of sad situation is the primary reason why it is so important for wildlife to be handled and raised only by qualified rehabbers with state and federal permits and licenses. Bella was unable to care for herself in the wild. She did not know how to hunt or how to avoid predators. Many of these lessons can be taught to young birds and mammals as they are growing up or the natural instincts can be honed, but if handled improperly, the instincts are diminished and the bird or animal is not releasable.
For all of their obvious differences, Luna and Bella have many things in common. Screech owls and great horned owls, Florida’s smallest and largest owls respectively, are the only two owls with ear tufts. These tufts are not ears; the actual ear is a small opening in the side of the head, under the feathers. Both of these owls are primarily nocturnal hunters, but can and will hunt during the day when food is scarce. The screech owl eats insects, lizards, and mice. The great horned prefers larger prey like rats, rabbits, and other birds.
One of the most interesting features of all owls is the feather structure. The leading edge of the feather is soft and downy, giving the feathers an almost fur-like appearance and making it possible for the bird to fly silently. Owls do not make the same flapping noises that most birds do in flight. This allows the owl to silently approach prey without attracting any unwanted attention to it presence. A trip to PRWC when Luna and Bella are on glove gives our visitors a chance to get close enough to an owl to see their fuzzy little feet. Or fuzzy BIG feet, in Bella’s case.
Bella recently made her triumphant grand debut on glove at PRWC where she wowed the crowd with her majestic appearance. Luna is as cute as ever and remains a favourite. Whether you are Team Luna or Team Bella there is always something new and exciting to see at PRWC and a great deal to learn about living in harmony with the wide variety of creatures with which we share our little corner of paradise.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM
Ria Grasman with Luna
Callie Stahl with Bella the Great Horned owl