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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Barn Owl Gets Second Chance Thanks to Local Rescue Center

BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN

We were driving on Las Posas Road in Camarillo on our way home to Malibu when we saw the barn owl.  It was flying at eye level parallel to the road, its pale wings bright against the rain clouds at dusk. We went from feeling blessed for the opportunity to see this secretive nocturnal raptor to horror as the bird was caught in the slipstream of a passing truck, flipped through the air and slammed into the road.
As soon as it was safe we made a u-turn and backtracked to where the owl lay in the road. I stopped the car with the hazard lights on. The owl wasn’t moving. In the air it looked large and graceful. Now it appeared small and crumpled.
 “It has to be dead. How could it possibly have survived?” my mother and I asked each other.
“Maybe we should just let nature take its course and not interfere?” We both knew we couldn’t do that. We had to check. We couldn’t just drive away. This owl was on the road and in danger of being flattened by the next vehicle. It was also extremely cold out and beginning to rain again. The bird’s feathers would be sodden. Even if it was not seriously injured it could die of shock.
We stepped out into thick mud and made our way over to the owl. It was still alive. I could see that it was breathing, but it was impossible to determine the extent of its injuries.
Using leather gloves and an old towel stored in the car for emergencies, I gently lifted the owl off the pavement and placed it in a cardboard box. It was surprisingly light.
My mother, who is 80, but always game for any adventure, big or small, took charge of the box, keeping it on her lap, and ensuring that its occupant would remain in the box if it revived in the car.
She’s an intrepid rescuer of snakes, birds, rabbits,  and the occasional stray rodent.
 It was nearly 5 p.m. and starting to rain. A frantic Google search for wildlife rehab in the area yielded only answering machine messages and a disconnected phone number, but the California Wildlife Center in Calabasas was still open and the staff member agreed to wait for the owl. “Call when you get there,” he said. “Someone will be there to meet you.”
We headed back to the 101 and over the Camarillo grade. It took us almost an hour with the rain to reach the wildlife center. Halfway there the owl revived enough to flap around in the box. We resisted the temptation to look. My mother kept the lid of the box gently but firmly in place.
They were expecting us at the California Wildlife Center. While we filled out the necessary paperwork, the owl was weighed, measured, and found to be dehydrated and suffering from hypothermia.
‘That’s not unusual,” CWC Animal Care Coordinator Denys Hemen told us. “They dehydrate easily.”
The patient was placed in an incubator to keep warm and received subcutanious fluids and nutrition. He would have to wait for morning for the vet to examine him.
We learned that barn owls depend on the moisture in their prey—primarily mice, pocket gophers and other small rodents—to stay hydrated. Well-meaning but inexperienced would-be rescuers have reportedly drowned owls attempting to give them water. However, experienced rehabilitators have had success using subcutanious fluids to rehydrate owl patients.
When we checked on the owl the following day we were told that the veterinary examination did not find any broken bones and blood tests and parasite tests were within normal levels, but the owl was still not able to maintain its body temperature.
By the second day, the owl had recovered enough to eat a mouse. CWC staff were now optimistic that the bird would survive.
By the end of the week the owl had recovered enough to feel fierce and angry, spreading its wings and bobbing its head to warn the rehab staff to keep away. “It’s a good sign,” Hemen told me. “You know there is something seriously wrong with an owl that lets you just pick it up.”
Almost a week and half after his near miss on Las Posas Road, the owl was ready to be released.
A study of one barn owl family revealed that a nest of six hatchlings consumed an astonishing 70-plus pounds of rodents. A mature owl may consume as many as three or four rodents each night.
However, because the owl population can expand rapidly in response to an increase in the rodent population, starvation is a leading cause of mortality. Rodenticides can have a devastating impact on barn owls not only through direct or secondary poisoning but because widespread rodenticide use can cause barn owl populations to crash as their food source suddenly vanishes. 
As its name implies, this nocturnal predator has learned to adapt to life with humans, nesting in the barns and abandoned buildings, foraging in agriculture areas and making use of fence posts for hunting lookouts.
We learned that the average life span for most barn owls is less than two years due to the number of hazards they face, but that they have been documented to live for as long as 17 years under good conditions in the wild. Barn owls raised in captivity can live to be 20-25. 
Barn owls face many threats in the wild. Starvation, vehicle collisions and rodenticide poisoning top the list, but they are also vulnerable to predation by great horned owls, and are increasingly impacted by loss of habitat, as the open fields and meadows they depend on are replaced with urban sprawl. However, this owl was going to have a second chance.
 “They don’t look like it, but barn owls are fragile,” hospital manager Jo Joseph told me. “Unlike more robust birds, pigeons, for example, they can die from shock very easily. They dehydrate rapidly.”
Johnson gave us instructions for releasing the bird. The Department of Fish and Wildlife requires that all rescuees be released within a couple of miles of the location where they were found. CWC depends on volunteers to transport and release animals. When we brought the bird in we volunteered to pick it up at the center and bring it back to the Oxnard Plain for release.
My mother volunteered to assist with the release. We carried the patient back to Las Posas Road in a special plastic box with ventilation holes and a secure top. We opted to release him about a mile away from the site where we found him, in an area that offered shelter and didn’t have high-speed traffic.
Barn owls hunt primarily by sound rather than sight—the distinctive flat face is comprised of special feathers that create a sort of avian antenna for catching the sounds of scurrying rodents, but they reportedly also have good vision and are often out during daylight in the hour before the sun sets. We chose that time to release the patient.
We both intended to take photos of the release, but the owl was out of his carrier and ghosting away like a small white phantom the second we opened the box.
Barn owls often mate for life. Releasing this owl in the same area where we found him ensured the best chance that he would return not only to his usual hunting territory, which can cover as much as 200 acres, but also to his mate if he had one.
Wildlife rescues often don’t have happy endings. We were glad that this one did.
The CWC advises would-be animal rescuers to, “Safely contain the animal. Put the animal in a warm, dark, quiet place and immediately contact California Wildlife Center or a wildlife rehabilitator/center near you.”
We always have an emergency kit in the car with leather gloves, a towel, and a cardboard box.
While time is often the key to wildlife rescue survival, it’s important that would-be rescuers feel comfortable dealing with the animal they are attempting to assist and that the rescue does not put the animal or themselves at risk.
More information on the  non-profit California Wildlife Center is available at http://www.cawildlife.org. Animal emergencies can be reported at 310-458-WILD.

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