Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Owl Rescue

Last Saturday, while watching the boys at their swim lesson, my cell phone rang. George had gone to a local state park to swim, bike, and run in preparation for Ironman Wisconsin next Sunday. When he’s training, he only calls if he needs me to rescue him from a bike problem (like a flat he can’t fix).

I stepped away from the other parents, slid my phone open, and said a cautious hello.

“Hi, Honey. When are you going to be home?” He sounded too chipper for the call to be about a bike problem.

“Around 11:30,” I replied.

“Well, I’m at the Caesar Creek Visitors Center with a hurt barred owl I found on my bike ride. They don’t have staff to run him up to Yellow Springs to a raptor center there, so I’m going to do it. Right now, he’s in my triathlon bag, but they say we need to move him to a box. When you get home, can you find a box and some towels for him?”

Silly question! An ordinary Saturday had just turned into our very first wildlife rescue.

By the time I got home, George was already in the garage with the owl and told me the full story. He had been near the end of his bike ride when he passed a bundle of feathers on the side of the road. He thought the bird was dead but couldn’t let go of the idea that it might be hurt and in need of help. He felt he had to go back and check.

I love my husband. Isn’t he the best?

As he unclipped from his pedals to get a closer look, the owl looked up. One eye was shut, and there was blood on its beak. George ditched the idea of going for his run and decided he could run any time. The owl needed him now, so he raced back to his car and returned to the scene as quickly as he could.

He immediately realized he had a problem. Injured or not, the owl had a very big, yellow beak, and his talons bore a striking resemblance to giant black snake fangs: long, curved, with wicked looking points. Owls are birds of prey, of course, and nature has made them perfectly to kill mice and other small creatures. Assuming George could get the injured owl in the car, the talons could easily shred the leather seats, not to mention George himself. George had to put him in something, but all he had was his triathlon bag. He dumped his gear out of the bag and grabbed a towel to wrap around the bird.

George kept talking to the owl the whole time. “Please don’t bite me, Mr. Owl. I’m just trying to help you. You need to get in the bag. I promise I won’t hurt you. My, what big talons you have….” Okay, I made up the big talons part. The point is, George encouraged the bird with a running soliloquy of kind, soft words to win its trust and cooperation. Mr. Owl, however, didn’t speak English. He spoke Owl, which mainly consists of clicking his beak loudly and menacingly any time the big, bad human came too close. For all Mr. Owl knew, George was wrapping him up in a fuzzy blue pastry crust to make owl pie.

Three times George tried to get the towel around the owl, and three times the owl escaped. Finally, George got down on the owl’s level and said, a bit desperately, “I’m just trying to help you!” Then, using his strategic planning skills honed by years of military training, George positioned the open bag in front of his reluctant feathered friend and came up from behind with the towel. Mr. Owl hopped neatly into the bag. George cushioned him with the towel, zipped the bag mostly shut, and put it in the car.

Now what? The state park had a visitors’ center nearby, and as George suspected, the park rangers knew exactly what to do. They called the Glen Helen Raptor Center in Yellow Springs. The center could take the owl later that day, but the rangers were understaffed and couldn’t deliver him. George offered to serve as an Owl Taxi.

That’s how an injured barred owl ended up in our garage. The raptor rescue folks wanted us to move him from the bag into a cardboard box, but his talons had tangled in the mesh lining of the bag. Neither George nor I have any experience handling birds so moving him was intimidating. He clicked his beak some more, which is the owl equivalent of a dog growling. I covered his face with a small towel to keep him from biting George, he struggled a bit and magically untangled, and George lifted him into the box, where he settled with his face turned to the side of the box.

Check out those talons. I’m right, aren’t I? They look like giant black snake fangs.

Our inexpert handling of Mr. Owl left me feeling shaken and hoping we hadn’t injured him worse. When we arrived at the raptor center about two hours later, we met Betty Ross, who pulled on heavy leather gloves and reached fearlessly into the box to extract Mr. Owl, who in turn clicked his beak menacingly at her. Unlike us, Betty Ross ignored this show of perturbation and began her triage.

After running her hands over his body, spreading his wings, feeling his chest and back, and generally ruffling his feathers, she declared, “Well, no broken bones. He’s probably a young male who was out hunting last night and hit a car or truck. That’s a fairly common occurrence because they fly at night at about truck level.”

At this point, Betty Ross put her free hand on the owl’s head and face, and felt all around, her fingers dangerously close to the clicking beak. “His left eye is full of blood, and he’s clearly had his brains addled. His biggest problems are the eye and neurological damage. See how he’s holding his head to the side? We’ll give him a comfortable place to rest and recover, if he can. Sometimes they do get better, and sometimes they don’t. There’s no way to tell what will happen at this point.”

George filled out some paperwork, and Nick wandered across the room to say hello to a kestrel in a dog crate. “I saw a bird just like this at Junior Ranger Camp,” he said.

“Oh, you’re a Junior Ranger? That’s great! Do you remember me from camp?” Betty Ross asked.

“Sure I do!” Nick replied.

“You met that very kestrel. Remember his name? It’s Orville, as in Orville Wright. He’s a friendly bird with people, so we use him a lot in our presentations.”

I think Betty Ross is a friendly bird, too, and what an amazing job she and the other rescue folks do at the center. We walked around outside where enclosures house raptors that cannot be released to the wild. Each large cage has signs telling the birds’ species and names and how they came to be at the center: a bald eagle whose wing had been amputated after an encounter with a power line, various hawks, a stunningly pretty barn owl, barred owls, more kestrels, a few turkey vultures. Some of these birds have been at the center for decades.

The Glen Helen Raptor Center serves as a reminder of how our lives can affect nature in unexpected and harsh ways. Most of the birds that live permanently at the center were injured by cars or trucks, power lines, guns…hazards birds didn’t encounter before we came along. People like Betty Ross dedicate their careers to caring for raptors and educating the public about how important it is to preserve and protect these amazing creatures.

Those of us in the greater Dayton area are incredibly fortunate to have a raptor center so close. In our bumbling ignorance, George and I could never have cared for Mr. Owl ourselves; besides, it is illegal for average Janes and Joes like us to keep raptors.

If George had pedaled on past that bundle of feathers by the side of the road, the owl would certainly have suffered and died. As it is, he may not survive his injuries, but at least he won’t be eaten by a fox, he won’t die slowly of thirst and hunger, and he has a fighting chance. If he survives and can’t be released due to his injuries, he’ll have a very nice home for life. It’s all thanks to a man who does not speak Owl but speaks Compassion very well.

Way to go, George.

The latest update as of noon today: Mr. Owl is finally eating and drinking on his own and has a veterinary appointment on Friday to look at his eyes. He’s not out of danger yet, but the situation looks promising.


  1. Wow, that *is* one lucky bird. An amazing story.

  2. That's quite a story -- nice job, folks!

  3. Good for George! Thanks for sharing! There is a raptor club at a university near here, and I never tire of seeing the birds when some of the rescued birds are shown at community events. I like the owls the best.

  4. How good of your husband!

    I hope the owl is OK, and I hope your husband does well in the triathlon.

  5. Way to go, George! We have a lot of raptors living in our neighborhood. They nest in the century-old trees. I have only seen the owls once or twice, but I hear them every night. It takes a lot of guts to get close to those talons. I hope Mr.Owl makes it.

  6. Outstanding Susan and George!!! I am so proud of you both!!! You are the people that all rescue organizations wish for when the phone rings...

    I've done wildlife rescue for 9 years, everything from rescuing to releasing to care taking the animals and now I give education presentations... thank you for al of the time you gave to the barred owl... I hope he recovers and is able to be released back into his territory.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!