Levin: Owl Rescue

Apr 14, 2016

Encounters between a barred owl and a moving car can be hard on the owl, which despite deceptive appearances is really no heavier than a large gray squirrel... or put another way, the average female barred owl - females are heavier than males - weighs twenty-five percent less than a quart of skim milk.

With the notable exception of long-legged, flightless birds like ostriches, whose bones are solid and massive, most birds weigh far less than you’d think. (The bones of a magnificent frigatebird, for instance, weigh less than its feathers).

The barred owl is a sit-and-wait predator, and this one had likely glided low over Route 113 in pursuit of a white-footed mouse or a flying squirrel when it collided with the car windshield. The driver had stopped, determined that the bird was stunned but alive, and knocked on the nearest front door. My neighbors had gathered the owl up, put it in a large cardboard box, and then called me.

When I arrived, the owl was standing, one eye closed and blood on its beak, but alert. What it didn’t do was clap its beak, an audible sign of distress that a healthy barred owl will give if threatened. So I did what my Jewish mother might have done. I bought it home, transferred it to a roomy dog crate and offered it a defrosted shrew, which in retrospect was like offering a sandwich to someone who’s just had a concussion.

The next morning, the owl - alert but with one eye still swollen shut - monitored my movements with the other eye, like a periscope. The shrew was where I’d left it.

Next stop was the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, in Quechee, where the bird-rehab staff assessed the damage and determined that the owl hadn’t broken a wing. Not only might it survive, it might actually fly again. The owl was placed on a regime of pain meds and antibiotics, and hand-fed baby mice until it could again feed itself.

But its injured eye remained shut, so VINS transferred it to Tufts University Veterinary School, where supervised students diagnosed a collapsed orbit, removed the eye surgically, and sutured the eyelid closed, leaving the owl with a perpetual wink.

Several weeks later, it was a thrill to watch as VINS released the barred owl in my front yard, where it flew directly to an oak tree, landed flawlessly, ruffled its feathers, and preened a bit, as the evening closed in around it.