Saw-whet steals educators’ show

Posted Jan. 24, 2011, at 11:07 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

The little saw-whet owl and I peered intently into each other’s eyes as she perched barely 6 inches from my face. She seemed to be studying me, sizing me up, and I found myself wondering whether I passed muster.

After a few more moments of silent communion, the owl turned her attention to the person sitting next to me. Her handler was giving someone else the opportunity to be up close and personal, in a way that likely would not have occurred in a natural setting. In fact, her last contact with humans in the wild had not ended well for her — she had been hit by a car in southern Maine and had suffered a broken wing, which subsequently failed to set properly. This had precluded her from being released back into the wild.

Luckily, the owl ended up in with nature educators Mark and Marsha Wilson, who are based in Massachusetts. Once she healed she became a part of their educational program, “Eyes on Owls,” making trips to nature centers, schools and elsewhere to capture people’s hearts and, one hopes, inspire them to be more ecologically conscious and responsible.

Soon after her accident, her rehabilitators discovered she had been captured and banded in Cape May, N.J., in 1999. The information provided by the band on her leg indicated she was 1 year old at the time of the banding. So, here she was, at 12 years old, holding a standing-room-only audience enthralled at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm Nature Center.

She was by no means the only owl there, but she was dwarfed by her cousins, even by the pair of screech owls (think robin-size to roughly pigeon-size for a comparison). The largest owls there would not have hesitated to make a snack out of her or the screech owls, were they to meet in the wild. Their size and implied potential for ferocity were impressive, although a few of them had actually been raised in captivity, born at zoos and given to the Wilsons for their educational program.

Among the seven types of owls there, perhaps the most beautiful was the male snowy owl. Its stunning white plumage contained only minimal black barring, making its golden eyes seem all the more brilliant and piercing. This owl was the most excitable of the group, flapping its wings and attempting to launch itself from Marcia’s thickly gloved hand; its wingspread was impressive.

The barred owl, great gray owl and great horned owls were all impressive in their own right. Each perched quietly, the great horned owl distinguished itself by constantly swiveling its head to keep its eyes on Marcia. It was a special treat to see the Eurasian eagle owl, which is native to the Eastern Hemisphere. This owl can grow to more than 2 feet tall and have a wingspan of more than 6 feet; it is considered to be one of the world’s largest owls.

Still, the little saw-whet was definitely the star of the show. Of all the owls, she was the calmest, and her diminutive size made it possible for her to be brought around the room for a personal visit with everyone. Nothing seemed to faze her, and the intense, direct eye contact she made with people was just a bit unnerving. No wonder owls have been anthropomorphized as being wise and prescient; once captured by this unwavering gaze it seemed easy to believe.

For information about Marcia and Mark Wilson and their “Eyes on Owls,” program, visit www.eyesonowls.com or call 978-649-3779.

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