It was at the end of June 2017 when we got a call at Humboldt Wildlife Care Center from a local team of biologists who were banding Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) nestlings deep in the forest along the Trinity River. They had a nestling owl with an injured wing. They couldn’t leave him in the nest, and they wanted to know if we were able to treat him. Of course we said that we could. The nestling owl was brought in to our clinic later that day.
Upon admission, we opened the transport box and found fourteen ounces of fuzzy feathered fury. Indignant, terrified and presumably hungry, the small wild owlet whose short life had taken a very terrible turn, was not interested in making life easier for anyone. He struggled frantically as we moved him from the box to our initial housing. This one was going to be a handful, no doubt about it. We hoped his exam would reveal a simple injury that would heal easily with non-invasive treatment.
First day in care, the young owl right before our initial exam. We don’t know how severe his injury is yet and we’re hoping for the best.
A nestling owl’s first day in care, during admission exam.
Unfortunately, this was not the case. The injury, a fracture of a digit, was severe enough that surgery would be required. We wrapped the young bird’s wing with a supportive bandage, and with the approval of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, made arrangements for the youngster to travel far out of his range. We sent him to Morro Bay, 9 driving hours south, where BAX co-founder and skilled avian orthopedic surgeon, Shannon Riggs, DVM, is the director of animal care at Pacific Wildlife Care.
Northern Spotted Owls are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act as well as the California Endangered Species Act (currently being petitioned to be moved into the more urgent “endangered” designation). Threatened and Endangered Species get special consideration. We notify the state and federal agencies whenever we admit a patient who is under this kind of legal protection. Here at BAX, we support the most urgent protection of the habitat that these icons of our ancient forests require.
Even with surgery needed, we still hoped that the young bird would make it back to the wild in time to be rejoined with his siblings and his parents. Birds generally heal much more quickly than mammals, and we were optimistic that within 3 weeks, he would have recovered from his injury and treatment and be able to go home.
But an easy fate was not this owl’s destiny. In every situation he fought for his life out of mortal terror. It’s a hallmark of many species that a major milestone in the life of juveniles as they grow toward adulthood is learning to conserve energy. Juveniles try anything, no matter how much effort is needed, often failing. A successful adult has learned the importance of energy conservation. As an example an adult Brown pelican plunge dives in neat straight lines and will abort mid-dive if chances of successfully catching the fish worsen. Wasted energy doesn’t help fill the belly. Meanwhile juveniles thrash, and flap and hit the water from any angle every time they dive. The awkward failures of juveniles often seem comical, but those who don’t learn to conserve energy and wait for the auspicious moment may not survive to adulthood.
This same juvenile headlong rush into action applies to attempts to defend themselves from threats. Whether struggling to escape or struggling to strike out, juveniles are simply much more of a handling concern than adults. Adults have learned to assess the situation – perform a basic cost-benefit analysis – before taking action, conserving energy for the moment with most likely chance for success. A juvenile owl, terrified and with talons, may launch himself or herself into battle with sure defeat, simply due to inexperience. Add to this problem that all captivity is a threat to wild animals, no matter how safe for our patients we try to build our facilities, a juvenile with only fear and the desire to get away is especially at risk form captivity related inkjuries.
This owl, as soon as his initial injury had healed, seized an unguarded moment as he was waking up from anesthesia after a procedure and flung himself from his recovery chamber to the floor, breaking another bone! Fortunately it wasn’t a life-ending injury, but it was a setback – this meant that the owlet might not make it back to his nest before his family would be dispersed.
Adding to the injury, this owlet never accepted his captive fate, and struggled against it daily. This had caused feather damage, which needed to be addressed before he could be released.
Because we often admit patients who are so badly injured all we can do is help end their suffering, we do have access to donor feathers. We had a complete set of Spotted Owl flight feathers that had been taken from an owl that had been hit by a vehicle and brought to our clinic. We sent these feathers to Morro Bay where they were used to temporarily replace those that had been damaged by this fierce young owl who never says die.
Learn more on how donor feathers are used in a process called imping here.
Soon the owl was flying. He’d recovered from his two fractures, his damaged feathers had been replaced, he’d gotten older and it was time. For a couple of months the owl was provided with flight training in Morro Bay. Dr. Riggs was cautious regarding his flight capabilities and wanted to be sure that his injuries had healed well enough that he would be able to keep himself aloft once free.
At the beginning of the new year, at last we began to make plans for his return north, to HWCC.
There was one last obstacle to overcome before this owl could be released back to his rightful freedom. We needed to know that he could hunt. So far, he’d only eaten the food his parents had brought him while he was in the nest, and the thawed frozen mice that he’d gotten during his treatment. A predator needs to be able to hunt as much as see, fly or any other crucial activity. A Spotted Owl who cannot recognize live prey, can’t find, kill and eat small rodents, is not going to thrive in the wild. Six months after the initial injury, we now prepared our aviary here in Humboldt for the young owl’s return to our facility and we began to strategize a program of hunter’s education.
In order to respect privacy, reduce stress, and ensure that the live prey were not associated with the human caregivers who entered the aviary, a special feeding door was installed in the aviary so that mice and rats could be offered from our unseen hand.
At first we offered them in a very exposed container. We wanted the owl, just like any novice student in any subject, to have early successes that would build confidence for when the circumstances were more difficult.
Our basic strategy was to provide the setting, the stimulus and the opportunity and allow his own instincts to lead him. Once he mastered the art of taking a live mouse as prey that had no where to run or hide, we added materials that the mouse could use to avoid being seen. At the same time, we discontinued all dead food items. The owl had to survive on what he caught and ate. We monitored for weight loss, and of course we tracked the number of mice as they went missing.
After ten days, we gave the mice free rein in the aviary. Our aviaries are built to keep other animals out, including mice and rats, so, like a boat that holds water in as well as out, we were confident that the mice could not escape. But they could burrow in a few inches of leaf and soil before they hit a mouse-proofed aviary floor. We have landscape areas of natural plants in our aviary that the mice used. Often there were times when staff was unable to see the mice. Our young owl didn’t have that problem. His weight, now that he was fully grown, stayed stable. For three weeks this owl fed himself on the mice he captured and killed. At this point we were confident in his abilities.
It may seem obvious that a hunter needs to be able to hunt, but it is not without sorrow that we took these mice to their end as dinner for an owl. But we are by vocation and avocation wildlife rehabilitators, and wildlife rehabilitators do not argue wth nature. We help Nature heal using Nature’s own methods as much as we can. In order to treat and release orphaned wild predators, we must provide them the opportunity and environment in which they can to learn to hunt.
Making it a little harder: grasses and other materials that the mice can use to hide from the owl are added to the bin.
After our patient was successful at hunting the mice in the tubs, we removed the tubs. For over a week the young owl thrived in this scenario, even gaining weight in the last week in care.
We built this aviary, designed by BAX co-founder January Bill, with the intention that it be an excellent environment for both recovering adult raptors and learning orphaned raptors. We’ve had it for five years now, it’s a critical part of our program, having helped provide an environment that encourages recovery with excellent results and hundreds of successful patients.
In our aviary our patients have a pastoral view at the mouth of the Jacoby Creek watershed. We strive to protect and respect their wild nature and offer them all the solace and comforts of their wild home that we can. Our young owl patient nearly always chose this location to roost.
Moments before his last exam. After three weeks of only eating what he found for himself, we are preparing for his release back to the area where he was originally found, early last summer, 2017.
Staff attempts to net the young bird for his release evaluation.
Fight/flight mechanism mean more when you can actually fly!
Six weeks after this owl returned to his home county, and three weeks after he was fed his last pre-killed mouse, he was in the best shape of his young life, – his wild personality intact, his chances as good as they were ever going to be. We took him back to the Trinity River, close to his original nest site, and restored his freedom. Will he ever re-unite with his parents or siblings? Not likely. His family almost certainly dispersed at the end of last Summer, his siblings independent by September. Now he gets his belated chance, too.
A last, low light view of our young graduate of hunting school – now he fades back into the surrounding and surrounded wild, home where he belongs.
It was quite the journey for this young fellow traveler of Earth’s travails* to reach his final act of fledging, to leave not his nest but his captivity. While it would have been better had he never been injured, his time in care, although fraught with setbacks, and times of deep anxiety over his fate, was beneficial. We learned a lot about providing the type of care this patient required, specialized, an individual with his own personality, fierce, aggressive, ready for the terms of the wild – the blaze of reality – where it’s always a matter of life and death.
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all photos Laura Corsiglia/BAX
*From Henry Beston’s classic, The Outermost House, (1928)
“Touch the earth, love the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and the dawn seen over the ocean from the beach.
When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity.
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”