A foundling

Rescued owl babies back in nest with mother - My owl adventureAs usual, coming home from work at 6:30 p.m. a few days ago, I parked in the sunken lot below our building and walked up the concrete steps to the walkway that leads to our unit. On the hillside a few feet beyond that sidewalk, I saw a couple of grey-white blobs that looked like they might be a new species of exotic mushroom. Such fungi often pop up here a few days after it’s rained.

As I got closer, I could see that what had looked like two blobs from afar was actually the head and body of a baby bird who was sprawled out on the soft pine-needled ground. The bird wasn’t moving, so I lifted it slightly, and felt it resist. It was alive!

My first thought was that it might be a goose, since our cul-de-sac is filled in early spring with geese—mating, honk-screaming and using our flat rooftops as runways for takeoff. But it looked more like some kind of raptor. I remembered a pair of hawks that had lived in one of these trees a few years ago. Maybe they were back.

Rescued baby owl in shoebox with pine needles and leaves - My owl adventure

The baby in the shoebox, just after being found

Then I noticed another little body, a few feet higher up on the hill, and climbed to where it lay. When I lifted this bird, there was no sign of life at all. Perhaps the long fall from a nest high in a tree had killed it on impact.

Back beside the first bird, I thought about what to do. There was little question of “what,” actually. It was more about “how.” Mentally, I saw myself clumsily trying to feed a baby bird who was barely alive. Success seemed unlikely. However, I felt I had to at least try.

I walked down to our unit a couple hundred feet away and emptied out a shoebox that I use to store paintbrushes. I put a few pieces of Kleenex in the bottom of the box and walked it back to the bird. There, adding some pine needles and leaves, I lifted the little one into it. It lay unmoving, but at least now I could get it inside and do some online research about what kind of care it needed.

The learning curve

Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, California - My owl adventure

The Lindsay Wildlife Museum in Walnut Creek, California (U.S.)

I looked up the website of the Lindsay Wildlife Museum on the other side of our town, which has an adjoining animal Rehabilitation Hospital. Unfortunately, both the museum and the hospital had closed at 5 p.m. I couldn’t take the bird there until morning.

It would be a good 14 hours until the animal hospital opened. Letting the bird starve seemed counter-intuitive. Would I leave a newborn human baby without food or water for that long?

Continuing to peruse the website, I found a section about raptor care. There were recommendations. Place the bird in a box, as I had already done. Cover the box. The quiet, dark space, I read, would calm the bird. I immediately put the top on the shoebox and continued my research.

Don’t try to force-feed the bird food or water, the instructions went on. I pondered this. It would be a good 14 hours until the animal hospital opened. Letting the bird starve seemed counter-intuitive. Would I leave a newborn human baby without food or water for that long?

I checked another website, that of the Raptor Center at the University of California at Davis. They also suggested not feeding a rescued bird, adding that these birds need special kinds of food, and giving them the wrong kind might be worse than not feeding them at all.

I was confused. By now, the bird had been in the closed box for half an hour or more. I opened the box and was utterly surprised to find the formerly prone little thing sitting up like a tiny Easter chick and emitting a nonstop stream of vibrant little peeps!

I’d taken a photo of it lying prone in the box [see above], and now I took another of the bird sitting up. Uploading both pictures to my Facebook page, I asked if any of my friends could advise me about this feeding/non-feeding matter.

Before long, responses started coming in. A woman who takes care of parrots wrote, “If you leave it in the box overnight, it will be dead in the morning,” echoing my own intuition. She suggested I give it some chicken. Someone else suggested I use raw chicken, and chew it up first.

Barbara, my wife, found a medicine dropper. I gave our guest a couple of droppers of water, which it seemed to accept. A bit later, though, another person wrote in, “Parent birds don’t feed water to their young. The babies get their water from their food.”

I discontinued the water, but went to work defrosting a piece of frozen raw chicken. I chewed it thoroughly, washing my mouth out afterward, and brought it with my hand from my mouth to that of the bird. It took a tiny bit of nudging to get the creature to open its mouth, but it soon wolfed down the lump of chewed chicken with real gusto! I continued this practice at intervals of a couple hours for as long as I was up. Each time, the bird hungrily grabbed and swallowed the food.

Our phone rang. It was a couple we knew, who’d seen my post on Facebook. Both the man and the woman thought our bird looked more like an owl than a hawk. That resonated with me, too. I’d briefly noted that the baby had a hook nose, like an owl. Barbara and I had also been hearing owls hooting at night from somewhere near our home for several weeks, although I couldn’t remember hearing them the past few nights. My friends went on to try and research what kind of owl it might be.

Meanwhile, it was getting late and I needed to get to sleep. The last thing I did was have a talk with Barbara about where in the house our bird might stay the warmest. In the end, I decided to take our little companion up to our bedroom and place the box on the little table next to my side.

It peeped and peeped, but it was still a cheerful, vibrant peep, for all its assumed neediness. Since I use a CPAP machine for my sleep apnea, I could scarcely hear the little one. I got up during the night to do one more eagerly-accepted feeding, and then slept until around 7 a.m.

Turning off my machine, I listened for my companion’s peeps. There was only silence. I became a bit alarmed. Our bird had seemed so strong! After all of Barbara’s and my encouragement, had it not made it through the night?  I quickly opened the box and poked it. The peeping resumed. It had fallen asleep, just like I had. I breathed easy.

Hospital admission

Adult great horned owl - My owl adventure

An adult great horned owl

At 9 a.m. I was at the animal Rehabilitation Hospital, five or so miles from our home. The lady at the counter took down my information and took the shoebox back to the veterinary specialists.

A little while later, she returned and told me, “It’s a great horned owl baby, five or six days old!” Before long, the tiny, fuzzy thing would grow into one of these regal and somewhat intimidating-looking adult birds!

Several people on Facebook asked me if I was going to raise the owl. I hadn’t intended to, because I’d thought the animal hospital would do that.

A day after taking in the bird, however, I received a phone call from Sherrill Cook, a Lindsay Wildlife volunteer who is the species manager for great horned owls. Sherrill asked me to mark the tree that I thought the owl came from, because during my work hours away from home the next day, she was going to come and reconnoiter, hopefully locating the nest with her binoculars. The plan, she told me, was to bring a tree climber in soon and put the baby back in its nest.

The next day Sherrill texted me that she had indeed located the nest. Saturday morning, she texted again that she was bringing the tree climber and a few volunteers, who were going to look out for the parent owls, to the site at 2 p.m. “See you there!” I replied.

Owl replacement

Rescued owl in box with older baby owl - My owl adventure

The baby who’d fallen from the nest and another baby, a week older, who also needed a home

Sherrill came at a few minutes after two. Accompanying her were John Traverso, the tree climber; John’s wife, Alise; four other Lindsay volunteers; and two baby owls!

Another baby needed a home, and the mother wouldn’t mind a second baby, Sherrill said, especially since one of hers had died. When she opened the carrying box, I saw “my” bird, looking truly diminutive next to a “Baby Huey”-sized owl only a week or so older, but nearly twice the size!

Sherrill also brought a large straw basket. The current nest, she explained, was a platform-like thing that some hawks had left in the tree a few years back. (I was surprised to learn that owls don’t build nests, but take over the abandoned ones of other birds.) The hawks’ nest, however, hadn’t been safe for the babies. It would be replaced by this basket with high sides, from which there would be no tumbling out!

We all had a little scare: the line appeared to be giving way, and John started to fall!

John Traverso soon set to work, throwing a line over a high branch in the tree, putting on a harness and then quickly pulling himself up 60 feet (about 18 metres). At one point, we all had a little scare: the line appeared to be giving way, and John started to fall!

However, this seeming danger only lasted a second. What happened, John explained, was that he’d looped his line over a small branch that was just above the big, sturdy one he’d been aiming for. The small branch gave way under his weight, but after falling an inch or two, the line was secure around the big branch.

As John climbed, we witnessed the sight of the mother great horned owl fleeing from “this meddler” in her tree! I had a quick glimpse of her great wings pumping, before she disappeared into the branches of another tree a couple hundred feet away.

From there, she began to hoot at us and to make angry-sounding cracking noises that I’d never associated with owls. After a time, she stopped sounding off and flew off to another location, no doubt still nearby, where we couldn’t see or hear her.

John got established within reach of the owl’s nest. He called down to us that there seemed to be three babies still in the nest! Sherrill said, “That would make five altogether! I’ve heard of four owl babies before, but never five!”

John Traverso up in the tree near the owl's nest - My owl adventure

John, up there and ready to start receiving the basket and birds!

In a moment, getting even closer, John corrected his first assessment. “There’s one baby up here,” he said. “The other two things are dead gophers, cued up as food.” The gophers, he told us later, were headless.

When John was properly positioned, Sherrill set to work putting leaves and pine needles in the bottom of the basket, and then adding six dead mice, enough food for the mother to feed the three babies that night. Using the rope as a pulley, she ran it up the tree to John.

Sherrill sends basket up to John in tree - My owl adventure

Sherrill sending the new nest (straw basket) up!

As soon as he’d secured the basket and placed the contents of the old nest inside it, she began covering the two owls in the box with a small blanket, to protect them in case of jostling on the way up. Then she closed the box and soon it, too, was being hoisted.

Sherrill covering box with two owls inside - My owl adventure

Covering the babies for protection before sending them up

Before long, John was back down on Earth. The mission appeared to have been 100 percent successful. And whatever some imaginary Modern Bird’s Nest magazine might say about “these tacky basket nests”—who cares, the birds are safe!

John back on ground after successful mission - My owl adventure

Back on the ground. Mission accomplished!

Takeaway thoughts

The new nest in the tree

Several days have passed. Though the basket in the tree isn’t easy to spot at first, once you see it—well, the phrase “sticks out like a sore thumb” comes to mind. The birds, however, aren’t at all visible. Sherrill told me that in four to six weeks, the babies will begin practicing walking on the branches near the nest, and the Mom will likely put in appearances, too, as she encourages and supervises them.

I feel happy to have these neighbours, one of whom was once our overnight guest. I’ll always feel the bond!

Our neighbourhood is part of the vast area of intersection between the habitats of people and “wild” animals. We humans tend to go about nearly oblivious to the presence of our often invisible neighbours.

However, when a coyote walks down the path that Barbara’s office window looks out upon—as happens every morning—or when the owls hoot (I learned that owls hoot during the mating season, stop after the babies are born, and start up again as the babies are learning to fly), or a more distant pack of coyotes all howl together at night, it’s a thrill! And to intimately care for one of these neighbours and help it survive is an experience that feels as if it enters the realm of the sacred.

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image 1: John Traverso; image 2: Wikimedia Commons; all other images: Max Reif