One young animal lover recently saw a baby owl in trouble and took action.
Eight-year-old Breanna Levery, of Fairchild Air Force Base, told her mom that a baby owl had fallen out of a tree into a neighbor’s yard. “He fell out of the tree. I saw and heard him. He was all puffed up,” Breanna said.
“There was another baby up there too, and the mother kept flying around,” said her dad, Air Force Sgt. Gary Levery. “But we think she was afraid to fly down to her baby because of all the people around in the area. It was in someone’s yard. We were afraid that something was going to get it, cats, dogs or kids would end up messing with it and it wouldn’t survive.”
His wife, Jeannie Levery, made several phone calls before she was finally put in contact with Marilyn Omlor, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator with the Greenacres Raptor Rehabilitation Center. Omlor agreed to meet them if they were able to capture it.
“Marilyn told us to be careful because owls can be pretty dangerous with their talons and beaks, even though they are small,” Gary Levery said.
Wearing thick gloves and ready with a towel and cat carrier, the Leverys approached the foot-tall baby great horned owl. The little raptor’s feathers puffed up and it made a clicking noise, instinctive self-defense reactions. They draped the towel over the owl and scooped it into the cat carrier.
“On the way to meet Marilyn, the owl finally settled down and just looked around as it sat next to Breanna in the carrier,” Gary Levery said. At that point, the smoky gray owl became a resident at the Greenacres Raptor Rehabilitation Center.
The Washington Wildlife Rehabilitation Association advocates teaching children that we share this planet with wildlife, admonishing the public to not harass or disturb wildlife, as state and federal laws protect all wild animals. Omlor fervently agrees, adding, “As a wildlife rehabilitator, one of the reasons for decisions you have to make in taking an animal out of the wild is people causing problems for wildlife. It’s a tough thing. This owl is in a flight pen now with the other owls I have. The animal’s parents are the ones who are supposed to be taking care of it.”
Baby owls stay with their parents generally throughout the summer, until they learn to capture and kill prey. The wildlife rehabilitator becomes a surrogate or a foster mother, taking on that responsibility.
A human surrogate has shortcomings, Omlor admits.
“I can’t teach owls to make the sounds they make to other animals in the wild,” she said. “I teach that they are supposed to hunt at night, so I will start feeding more at nighttime. I can’t teach that if it flies in the daytime, a red-tailed hawk will come down and eat it. Those are things that they would have been taught by the mom. When the owls are about three to four months of age, I generally release them at Turnbull Wildlife Refuge, after calling and getting permission. The animal then has about a 50-50 chance of surviving.”
Owls are dangerous and may attack if a person gets close to their babies. Omlor has heard such stories from other rehabilitators.
Handling owls is also dangerous; thick gloves are essential. She said, “Owls put their talons into the guts of their prey, such as mice, voles and rabbits. Those animals can carry disease. If one of these talons scratch or puncture a person’s skin, you can get some serious diseases going on. They can sever tendons in your hands and arms. You have to be really aware of what’s going on, when you’re working with these animals.”
According to the Washington Wildlife Rehabilitation Association, many wild animals do not need to be “rescued,” and there is almost never a time when a person should remove a baby wild animal from its natural environment – even if it appears abandoned. More often than not, just leaving a young animal alone affords it the best chance for survival.
“If the animal is injured, make sure no parents are around,” Omlor said. “Then call a wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian as a resource. If possible, put it back in the nest. If you can’t reach it, put it in a berry basket with a napkin or some dried grass and put it in the crook of a tree. The adults will hear it crying and will come to feed it. Contrary to popular belief, adults will not reject their young because they smell like people.”
Because of their training, wildlife rehabilitators can help concerned people like the Leverys decide whether an animal truly needs help.