Jan 17, 2013

Small Owl, Big Story

Burrowing owls are small birds of prey that stand about 9" tall. As the name implies, they live underground, usually in holes dug by other animals, like ground squirrels. Burrowing owls require wide open landscapes with short vegetation - the sort of land most coveted by developers. On the national level, the burrowing owl is a Bird of Conservation Concern, and a Species of Concern in some states, including California.

Back in early November, we were contacted about a burrowing owl that had taken up residency in a commercial garage in Santa Clara, CA - a cement truck repair shop. 
It had taken to hiding in cubbyholes and roosting atop beams, watching the men at work.

The owl was apparently healthy and able to fly, but was acting tame, especially towards one of the mechanics, who, out of concern, was providing it crickets, mealworms and thawed mice from a pet store. 

We sent two of our volunteer responders, Jeff and Jessica, to investigate. We also reached out to local ornithologist and burrowing owl expert, Jack Barclay, who has devoted the last 20 years to conservation of this dwindling species.

While it's not unusual for a wild raptor to 'tame down' when provided food, and, according to Jack, it's not uncommon for burrowing owls to overwinter in odd locations, this was not a good situation - on evenings, weekends, and holidays, the doors to the facility were shut, trapping the owl inside.

Ideally, we would relocate the owl to a better site, like Shoreline Park, where there is an established group of burrowing owls and a dedicated program to protect them (check it out). We'd also like to have the owl ringed, or banded, so it could be easily identified. It would be valuable to know if the owl returned to the repair shop or remained in wild habitat.

Jack Barclay was extremely generous in agreeing to band the bird, and Phil Higgins, biologist for the City of Mountain View and burrowing owl expert, was very accommodating with our request to relocate the bird on the parkland he oversees.

It was then a matter of scheduling. With the holidays and travel, work schedules, and the weather, we were finally able to set the release for Friday, January 11. The plan was to pick up the little owl at the warehouse at 2:30 and meet Jack and Phil at Shoreline Park at about 3:00 or so.

That morning, however, we received word from Glenn, the mechanic, that the owl was behaving oddly - he thought it might have gotten into something, like engine oil or anti-freeze... We responded on scene quickly.

When we arrived, the owl appeared alert and responsive, but, according to Glenn and his co-workers, the owl was behaving abnormally, unable to land or maintain its balance - almost as though it were drunk.

We rushed the little owl to the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley - by the time we arrived, the owl could barely stand. It was immediately seen by a medical team and treated for antifreeze poisoning - with vodka!

Thanks to the quick action by the wildlife hospital staff, within hours the owl was back to normal. It's prognosis for a full recovery was excellent.

Days later we made new plans for its return to the wild.

On January 16th, we picked up the owl from WCSV and escorted it to Shoreline Par. Jack Barclay carefully examined the little owl, recorded its measurements and secured identification rings to its legs. Phil Higgins picked out a burrow for it to be released to. Video below.

The owl was placed at the entrance to one of the site's many manmade burrows, where it immediately disappeared into the darkness of the tunnel. A few thawed 'feeder mice' were placed just inside the entrance.

With luck, the little owl will take to its new digs!

Learn more about burrowing owls and efforts to protect them, HERE.


Anonymous said...

What a sweet, heartwarming story! So many caring people involved with this itty-bitty creature. The world needs so many more people like ALL those involved with the care and rescue of this very fortunate little owl.

Anonymous said...

I love it. What a cute owl...glad it was a happy outcome...good job.....

Anonymous said...

The Vodka treatment is very interesting--how does help?

Susan McCarthy said...

Wait -- vodka?