Sunday, February 16, 2014

Close Encounters of the Owl Kind

This past week I was called in to take an injured Great Horned Owl to a Wildlife Rehabilitator. I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived on the scene. Sick or injured wildlife are not always easy to help. Birds in particular may be just well enough to be able to stay out of reach. That was not the case with this owl. Other than hissing at me, he protested little about being scooped up and placed in a box. Still, his head was up and he was alert and the whole time his intense yellow eyes were fixed on me. 
Right before being captured, he looked a bit sleepy
In the car I immediately noticed the unmistakable acrid sent of skunk emanating from the bird. Great Horned Owls are one of few raptors that regularly feed on skunks and they often smell like it. At the rehabilitator’s facility, the owl checked out fine. No bones seemed to be broken nor were there any other obvious injuries or indications of disease. Just recently disease has been a problem in the region and birds of prey are proving to be particularly susceptible to West Nile Virus. In recent years the region’s Wildlife Rehabilitators have been getting in an increasing number of raptors infected with WNV. Red-tailed Hawks, Barred Owls and Great Horned Owls seem to be the harder hit species. Fortunately this male Great Horned Owl showed no symptoms of West Nile.
Perhaps an unexpected passenger for the pet taxi
It was thought that the most likely cause of the bird’s problem was a concussion brought on by impacting against something – possible a tree, house or vehicle. In other words, he may have just knocked himself silly. Impacting against structures – most often man-made structures are a very common cause of death and injury in birds. It’s estimated that millions of songbirds are killed annually in impacts. Most of the fatalities involve nocturnal migrants that smash into tall buildings and other structures that impede their migratory flight paths. The toll of songbirds and raptors that impact against picture windows is not inconsequential either.
After he was released he flew into the woods and plunked down into the snow

At the rehabilitator’s facility the Great Horned Owl was put into a large outdoor recovery cage where its behavior could be observed. He was soon able to fly up onto a high perch in the cage and after 2 days it was clear that nothing seemed to be seriously amiss with him. He showed little interested in food, but since his weight was good, that was not a great concern. The decision was made to release the owl in the same place where he came from. If this were another time of year, perhaps he would have been held onto longer for the purpose of observation. However, since winter is the start of the breeding season for Great Horned Owls, it's very possible that this male bird may just have a family depending on him to provide food.
To look as large and as threatening as possible, the owl arched his wings over his back

The Owl was wide-eyed and hissing during the ride over to the release site. I had him in a cat carrier and I had to keep reminding myself that this wasn't actually a cat in the seat next to me. Truthfully, even with all of the fuss, he was a bit better behaved than the last cat that I transported.
In full threat display mode, he rocked from side to side while bobbing his head
Upon release, he flew very low, but competently into the forest and landed about one hundred feet away in the snow. He immediately turned around to face my direction – it was as if he expected me to come after him. At this point he adopted a threatening posture; he arched his wings over his back in such a manner that made him look 3 times his actual size. And then without taking his eyes off of me, and with his head bent forward, he began rocking side-to-side while rhythmically bobbing his head. This was a mighty impressive display. I suppose that if I were a fox or a coyote, I would've probably run the hell out of there.
Displaying for my benefit, he hardly noticed the small birds that were scolding him
Small songbirds that had been visiting a nearby bird feeder were beginning to notice the predator that I just set free and they weren't happy about it. They began giving high pitched alarm calls and coming in close to investigate. Mobbing behavior is quick to kick in with songbirds and within a few minutes there were about a dozen of them in the branches right above the owl, giving scolding calls and flitting about nervously. They only relented when it looked like I was doing their job and sufficiently worrying the owl.

Hopefully this owl is ready for prime time. I was a little concerned by the fact that he remained on the ground even when I approached, but then again this type of behavior isn't that unusual for traumatized birds. With luck he will soon normalize and go back to his regular routine.  
Snowy Owls are still the story of this winter - This one was found just 2 miles south of the Preserve
The Snowy Owl's camouflage works well in snow covered fields 

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