Owl recovering at nature center after run in with a skunk
Mystic ― A young, male great horned owl is on the road to recovery at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center after being found unable to fly at Pachaug Pond in Jewett City earlier this month.
On Sept. 6, Lori Edwards, a certified wildlife rehabilitator, got a call from two young men who found the weak, grounded bird. Edwards knew she would not arrive before dark and talked the callers through the process of safely capturing it. They brought the owl to her home in a plastic tote, and her work began.
This was not an uncommon occurrence for Edwards, who is also the animal curator and preschool educator at the nature center. As a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitation and education facility, the nature center took in 235 migratory birds for rehabilitation last year, in addition to 67 mammals, and 13 reptiles.
Edwards personally takes approximately 35 calls a year to rescue or care for injured birds at her home, in addition to other wildlife.
The first thing she noticed was that the owl smelled like a skunk.
“Great horned owls actually eat skunk, and, in this case, I think the skunk probably won,” she said, and explained that owls are the only animal that feeds on skunks, because their sense of smell is not very good, and the smell does not bother them. They also feed on small mammals and birds, and the occasional snake, frog or insect.
Based on the lack of wear on his beak, his size and her experience, she presumed that the owl was approximately 8 months old, and male, though there are only two ways to definitively determine an owl’s gender—through a blood test, or if it lays an egg.
Edwards, who spent 10 years as an emergency medical technician, quickly got to work evaluating the owl’s condition with a head-to-toe, rapid trauma assessment.
“I could tell right away his wings were fine—they weren’t broken,” she said, and he did not demonstrate any obvious signs of a head injury, though he was covered with a type of parasitic fly that preys on weakened birds. This had left him anemic and with a depleted immune system.
She spent that first night warming the cold, young owl, treating him for the parasites, injecting fluid under his skin for dehydration and giving him vitamin K to counteract poisoning, in case he had ingested a mouse or other rodent poisoned with rodenticide.
“People don’t understand that when they do the rodenticide, it doesn’t just kill the mice and rats; it keeps going in the food chain,” she explained.
“He was really bad. I didn’t actually expect him to survive the night,” she said.
But he did survive the night, and though she began by feeding him pieces of boneless chicken breast, he eventually was able to eat whole mice on his own, at which point she brought him to the nature center to continue his rehabilitation.
More than two weeks into recovery from his ordeal, he now stares out of his quarantine cage with enormous yellow eyes, puffing up his feathers and the ear tufts atop his head, in an attempt to look as large as possible and intimidate people he sees. And though owls do not always eat every day, he now polishes off the six mice he is given each morning.
The nature center spends $3,000 a month on frozen mice and rats to feed their resident birds and birds they have in rehabilitation, and relies heavily on donations to provide for the needs of their resident and guest birds, mammals and reptiles. This year, though rescues are down, costs have increased for rehabilitation because of an avian flu epidemic that requires birds to be quarantined for 21 days.
The recuperating owl is currently finishing his quarantine, which will be complete at the end of the month when Edwards will move him to the nature center’s 15-foot by 45-foot flight enclosure so she can see whether he can fly, and is strong enough to be released.
She believes his prognosis is excellent, yet she wonders at some of his behaviors. Though not tame, she says he is much more docile than typical great horned owls.
“I actually can scratch his head and touch his beak, which normally you can’t do-- even with trained great horned owls-- and we kind of have a connection. We’ll look in each other’s eyes, and he’ll wink, and I’ll wink,” which is a method she uses to train her birds and is not typical of other rescues.
“I don’t know, was he a pet? Did somebody have him,” she wondered aloud, adding, “or it could be a head injury,” even though there are no outward signs, she acknowledged.
If he is unable to be released, she says the center will look into keeping him. A placement with another organization is always an option, but Edwards said she would even look into building him his own habitat due to his potential to be an education bird.
In the wild, great horned owls have a life expectancy of 13 years, and, in captivity, they can live from 20 to 38 years.