Screech Owl – A Mother’s Day Story

On Wednesday, when I arrived at work, my boss asked me to help with a newly admitted patient – a Screech Owl whose hollow dead tree home was cut down, injuring her with the chainsaw in the process. Owls do not make nests, but instead ‘repurpose’ places such as the hollow of a dead tree. These trees are sometimes cut down without the cutter realizing that an owl family is inside. In this case, a cut was made directly where the owls were.

As we entered the treatment room, I heard a cheeping/clicking sound. In addition to the adult owl, there were 3 tiny, fuzzy baby owlets, only recently hatched, snuggled together in the flower pot they were brought in. These were not injured. I gasped when I saw how adorable they are:

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But I did not have time to admire them, since the adult owl needed immediate attention. She had a deep laceration in the breast muscle from where the chainsaw hit her, an injured wing, and an injured talon. She lost a nail, which was the thing that was bleeding the most. We gave her fluids, painkillers, cleaned the woodchips out of her wounds, which we then cleaned and dressed. Then we put her in a dark box to rest.

The next day we took her to our amazing avian vet to look at the wing injury. He also decided to stitch her breast wound, and repeat the fluids and painkillers and antibiotics. The following day, we had to check her out, see if she would eat, and re-introduce her to her baby owlets. When I took her out of her box, she clacked her beak at me, flapped her wings, and tried to bite me several times (Footing me with her talons was out of the question since I was holding her gently but firmly by her feet)

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She was definitely doing better. One thing we noticed about her that really got to me. I knew she was a mother or father, because we had her owlets right in front of us. But when I saw her ‘brood patch’, I really understood that this bird was the mother, and was deep in the process of rearing chicks when humanity interrupted so violently and accidentally. A brood patch is a patch of bare skin on the belly of a bird, made when she lays her eggs, by pulling out feathers. The hot bare skin pressed on the eggs keeps them at the perfect incubation temperature so the chicks will grow, and later, helps keep the growing chicks warm. Here’s what an owl brood patch looks like (not our owl):

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We also realized something else about this mother owl. She did not fly away when the chainsaws came. She covered her owlets, and took the brunt of the assault herself. Her owlets were completely uninjured. My heart ached for the father owl, who would return from a hunting trip to find his home gone, along with his partner and babies.

During the 2 days the mother owl was receiving emergency medical treatment, we had to feed the owlets. We chopped up lots of mice into small pieces and offered it on little tweezers to the babies. They ate readily, stuffing themselves an dropping off to sleep immediately when they were full. Here’s a few more images of them:

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Usually, the owlets we care for at the clinic are orphans. We use non-releasable owls as surrogate parents to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans. This time, we could try to reintroduce the babies to their own mother.

So, on the 3rd evening, my boss worked on constructing a little mini owl habitat for them. He made a hollow tree trunk nest, added branches, and put the whole thing in a mesh and fabric crate. He put the babies in, and the mother next to them. And he watched and waited. The mother did not attack the owlets. In fact, the next day, when I got to see the family, she was placidly sleeping in her faux nest, covering her sleeping babies:

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We wondered if she would feed her babies. Of course she did. We should never have doubted that this mother, who protected her tiny, helpless babies from such danger, would accept them back and continue to care for them in even foreign, strange circumstances. Just in time for Mother’s Day.

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