On any given day in the spring, a shed surrounded by rolling vineyards on the fringe of Kennewick holds about 20 young barn owls.
They’re confined until they grow big enough to eat a whole mouse.
Then they’re released from what’s become a successful Tri-City facility of Blue Mountain Wildlife, a Pendleton-based rescue operation for injured wildlife, mainly birds of prey.
The center’s intake of young barn owls has drastically increased this spring.
Young owls end up in trouble because their parents’ favorite nesting spots are on top of haystacks, said Michele Caron, who runs the Tri-City rescue.
When the haystacks are moved to be sold before the owls can fly, the owlets fall off.
Six years ago, Caron found three baby owls whose mother had been killed. After delivering them to the Pendleton rescue, she began volunteering for the nonprofit.
A few years later, Lynn Tompkins, the rescue’s director, suggested Caron set up an owl orphanage on her land because so many of the birds were coming from the Tri-Cities.
“The first year we took in 50, last year 114, and this year we’ll probably end up with 220 to 230 owls,” Caron said.
The increase partially is because more farmers know there’s a place that will take the owls they find on top of the stacks, Tompkins said. Cycles of the hay business also could be at fault.
When demand for hay is high, the stacks are moved earlier in the season, lessening the chances that birds can fly yet, Tompkins said.
Whatever the reason may be, the owls keep coming this year. They come from around Ellensburg, Yakima, Mesa, Waitsburg and the Tri-Cities, Caron said.
This past week, a farm family from Eltopia brought three owls in a cardboard box to Caron. She took the young birds to her intake center – also known as the tool shed – and examined each one.
One had a dislocated wing and a broken leg. Caron set the broken bone and taped a small splint to the leg.
The other two birds were in slightly better shape.
All of them were hissing their little hearts out, trying to repel the humans they saw as a threat.
And that’s exactly as it should be.
Caron uses a technique called “hacking” to raise the owls. That means exposing the birds to minimal human contact and maintaining their natural habits.
As soon as the young owls are ready to leave the shed, they’re put into hack boxes – large wooden boxes on top of 10-foot poles.
They are free to come and go, and Caron just tosses a few mice into the box twice a day, just as their mothers would do.
The owls never get used to people, and as soon as they can fly – which they learn by instinct without an adult’s example – they start to hunt on their own and soon take off forever.
Actually, not all take off forever. At least one female per year sticks around and helps feed the new brood.
“They readily take on other babies besides their own,” Caron said. “Three years ago, I had a foster mom that fed 19 of the babies before I ever had to feed one mouse.”
Owls are voracious hunters, and Caron once again has avian help with the feeding this year. But with so many birds coming in, she’s going through a lot of mice.
“We feed just under 600 mice a day,” she said.
She buys the mice in bags at 35 cents a head. That’s a little more than $200 per day.
Donations are needed and welcome, she said.
The center is trying to encourage groups to help farmers put up boxes on their own property for the owlettes they find on their haystack.
It’s really easy to avoid having to take owls to the rescue – put up hack boxes nearby and put the baby owls in there, Caron said.
It’s fine to move them. As long as the mother can hear them she will find the babies and feed them in the new nest.
“Every household needs one,” she said. “They’re powerful, they’re beautiful and we’re fortunate to be around them.”