Exploring the often uphill battle of orphaned owl rescue

Here at Love Nature, we have a special appreciation of the wilder side of life on this planet. That’s why we so wholeheartedly admire organisations and individuals worldwide who dedicate themselves to helping orphaned or injured animals.

While many wildlife rehabilitation facilities treat the whole gamut of local critters that surround them, some have pursued a more singular effort, focusing on a specific species or type of rehabilitation. This can be an even trickier feat to pull off funding-wise, but if done right, can bring certain advantages.

One such group is the Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society or O.W.L., located in Delta, British Columbia. Since 1985 they’ve been taking in birds of prey in trouble, on call 24/7. Today they treat around 400 to 600 birds per year and while many are released back from whence they came—to the celebration of all involved—some have sustained injuries that require them to become residents. We caught up with Rob Hope, who works in O.W.L.’s Raptor Care Centre. Here’s some of what he had to say about the in-and-outs of nursing displaced birds of prey, especially orphans, back to health.

Calling in the professionals

Hope explains that their patient’s ordeal begins long before they arrive in the hands of O.W.L. caregivers. Collisions with power lines or cars, hunting accidents, and poisoning are the most common events that bring in birds of prey.

Depending on the severity of their injuries, which range from being stunned to broken wings or blindness, the team either treats incoming birds themselves or employs the help of local veterinarians. Birds are particularly delicate creatures, unlike us humans for example, with lots of anatomical adjustments to allow such feats as flight. Something like a broken shoulder is effectively a death sentence for a bird of prey, unable to both hunt and flee from predators.

‘My experience, which is basically acquired from 15 odd years of hands on experience, is that every bird, every day, every injury is somehow different,’ says Hope. ‘But generally no matter what, the quicker you are in the more likely you are to successfully save an animal.’

Hope says back when O.W.L. first opened their doors some 35 years ago, they didn’t handle nearly as many patients as they do today. This may sound like a bad thing, but Hope says all in all, the increases they’ve seen are likely a good sign. Members of the public, government workers, and other rehab facilities alike provide the team with their patients. So if more birds are getting referred to O.W.L. it’s probably because more people are noticing these injured animals and taking the time to pursue their rescue.

‘Five years ago we were seeing only around 300 birds a year, these last few years we’ve seen more like 600 a year,’ says Hope. ‘I think it’s unlikely this is because there’s more birds getting injured each year and more so because people are more aware of these animals and the places that can handle getting them back into the wild.’

owls 4_0088The joys, and challenges, of dealing with orphans

Those who care for orphaned wildlife are in some ways facing an uphill battle. Not only are these little ones in the most vulnerable time of their lives, they’re also often undergoing treatments that can even be tough on adults in the prime of life.

Hope explains that certain resident birds offer a talon or two when it comes to helping orphans recover, and stay wild.

‘We keep youngsters with older permanent birds whenever we can, some will actually help to feed the orphans. Others are there just for the babies to see, hear, and talk to,’ says Hope.

He says some birds are better than others at the task, seeming to naturally take on the role of caregiver. Others, like those who arrived at O.W.L before having offspring of their own, are slower to learn the process or never do. ‘It’s a hit or miss,’ Hope concludes. ‘But in the end, I’d say most take to the role when given the chance.’

Serenity, for example, a female snowy owl whom Hope himself helped rescue from the tarmac of the next-door Boundary Bay Airport after she was hit by an airplane six years ago. In the end, her wing tip was amputated, making Serenity a candidate for longterm care. Now she’s a regular O.W.L. foster mum, helping other snowies stand a better chance of doing what she likely never will—return to the wild.

Curly, a female bald eagle, is another superstar foster mum. Curly arrived at O.W.L. after being electrocuted and never regained the full use of her wing. Hope says she’s one of their residents whom have actually taken to beak-feeding their wards.

‘Because she came in as an older bird, she had probably already had the experience of caring for her own young in the wild,’ says Hope.

Some foster parents were a big surprise to staffers, Hope says, their attitudes changing entirely in the presence of young ones. ‘Casper, a great horned female owl, usually puts a few volunteers in the hospital each year, but when given babies, is the biggest sweetheart,’ he says.

And O.W.L. even has foster dads, like Oopa, a great horned owl. Hope says the centre had a lot of great horned babies, so they took a chance on Oopa and he took to it. Now he’s joined the team, adding to the variety of experiences orphans will get before release.

Hope adds it’s true that they’ve had some very rare instances where foster parents have actually taken out the young ones, likely for reasons that had yet to become apparent to staffers. This would happen in nature, he says. And it’s a very unusual outcome. Orphans normally benefit immensely from this intimate kin care, learning how to interact with other raptors and essentially, gain their wings to adulthood.

Difficult patients and particularities

1Hope says every type of raptor comes with its own eccentricities. But a few species stand out as particularly tricky to treat. Ospreys, he explains, are around the top of this list, mostly because of their diet.

‘Osprey are big birds to start with, who don’t really perch, and need a lot of space. But more importantly in the wild they are constantly in pursuit of live fish and the action of crashing full speed into the water, from heights like 1,000 feet up, is actually good for their feathers,’ says Hope. ‘Building a flight cage this high isn’t really feasible, building a water feature and then getting enough fish to meet their daily needs is difficult as it is.’

Ospreys and eagles hang out in O.W.L.’s 128 foot long Pool Cage, supported by Canada Trust’s “Friends of the Environment” Fund. Featuring a still-to-be-complete pool, stocked with live rainbow trout and measuring some 50 feet long by 4 feet deep, Hope explains the cage is the permanent home of a pair of recovering osprey. Eagles, however, get turns in the cage when they are ready for a bit more action in the course of their recovery.

Hope says northern harriers are also sometimes difficult patients, being particularly stressy birds—generally a bit more high-strung and ill fit for cage-life.

Many of the other species they treat also require their own specifically constructed digs to thrive, which can get costly. But luckily some bird’s needs are a lot less demanding than their more fickle peers. The Barny Barn for example is precisely what is sounds like, a large barn hosting resident, orphan, and recovering barn owls. While a lot less work than ospreys or harriers, the team is still in the process of learning how to adapt their rehab plans to best prepare their patients for their return home.

‘Over the years we’ve learned that people aren’t using barns for livestock much anymore, instead stashing hay or supplies in them,’ says Hope. ‘We still keep some chickens separate from the birds so they can adjust to the noise, but we realize the habitats barn owls are living in are changing and so to then must how we treat them.’

Funding the future through education


While a lot of the work done at O.W.L. isn’t easy, funding the whole operation can be just as challenging. Hope says they rely mostly on private donations, but as the numbers of birds that come through their doors rise, so do the costs, infrastructure, and man-power needed.

The O.W.L. team is small—comprised of seven staff and volunteers, more than 40 resident birds, and patients. Since January they’ve had 263 birds. Right now they’re holding around 100.

Hope says reaching out to the public, especially their local community, is at the heart of O.W.L.’s mission. It’s also key to their success.

‘Of course because they’re at the top of the food chain like us, people generally have been taught to think of birds of prey as evil or scary,’ says Hope. ‘But this has really changed over even my time. Today people will pay big bucks to see these amazing birds in the wild, especially here in our province. And more and more people are starting to see that raptors are crucial predators.’

O.W.L. has a slew of programs geared at connecting birds of prey and the public, a lot of which is aimed at youngsters themselves. Five days a week, staffers take two live birds to educational institutions ranging from elementary schools to universities to talk to youth about the animal’s lives, habitats, traits, and how us humans impact them. O.W.L. also runs co-ops for high-school students, who gain a few weeks of hands on rehab action in exchange for school credit. They also offer tours during periods throughout late spring to early fall.

Hope says all of these experiences offer rewards unobtainable in the classroom alone. And once you’ve had a close encounter with one of these animals, it can be hard to go back to ordinary life altogether. Hope himself is living proof.

When asked for a parting thought, something overarching the general public should understand about the incredible creatures they work with, Hope had a fairly straightforward takeaway message. The first step towards appreciating these birds is becoming aware of them.

‘Just walking through the woods it’s usually hard to spot birds of prey, add to that cell phones and other distractions. It can be easy to forget they live amongst us,’ says Hope. ‘We’re hoping to teach people, especially the younger generation, how to look for these animals. Once they know how to find them most are on the road to becoming interested in them and in turn, committed to protecting their future.’

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