This story is the fourth in a series by Richard Spinney about his experiences transporting injured and sick wild birds for Avian Haven bird rehabilitation center in Freedom, Maine.
The day in late April was uninviting. It was cold, damp, raw, miserable . . . you name it. The temperature was in the high 40s, with a cold mist in the air. Mother Nature was trying to make it rain, but it wasn’t quite working. I was snug in my warm house when my phone chirped.
“Richard, are you available?” It was Diane Winn, co-founder of Avian Haven.
I was available, but I wasn’t really thrilled at the idea of going outside.
There was a nestling great horned owl on the ground in Bangor’s Mount Hope Cemetery, Diane told me. A couple walking in the cemetery had come across it. They had taken a photo with their phone and had sent it to her. (It was indeed a great horned owl nestling . . . not a little northern saw-whet owl, as in my previous story.)
“When you get the little owl, be aware Mama might be nearby,” Diane advised me. “Have the couple watch for her while you get the little one and put it in a box. The owl might attack, and you won’t hear it coming.”
I would be seen as a threat and, like any mom, she’s going to protect her child.
Great horned owls are quite big, hence the word “great.” An adult stands nearly 2 feet tall, has a wingspan of a bit over 3 1/2 feet and weighs 3 pounds. According to a friend of mine who is a former game warden, great horned owls may attack from behind. He had once described a great horned owl as a “tiger with wings.”
I met the couple near the entrance to the cemetery and followed them to where the little guy was huddled against the trunk of the tree. I searched the surrounding trees and didn’t spot the mother owl. They have a habit of blending in with the background, so I asked the couple to keep an eye out while I approached the little fellow and set the cardboard cat carrier down nearby. As I got closer, the little owl snapped its beak at me, telling me: “Bug off. Leave me alone!”
I reached down and grasped the nestling. It was about the size of a softball with a beak. There were no feathers, just the soft down of a nestling that offers no waterproofing. It was soaked to the skin and it was cold. It was my estimation that without Mom’s body heat and protective wings to protect it from the cold rain, the little bird would soon suffer from hypothermia. It would probably not have survived the night, as temperatures were forecasted to drop to near freezing. I put it in the cat carrier and returned with it to the car. Mama owl didn’t make an appearance.
After thanking the couple for caring enough to report the owl’s predicament and then staying around long enough to show me where it was, I put the cat carrier on the floor of my car, in front of the passenger seat. I folded the top flaps of the carrier down to allow air circulation and turned up the heat to 80 degrees. During the drive to Avian Haven, I occasionally glanced at the little owl. He didn’t budge the whole hour. He just stared at me.
Diane met me in the dooryard. The COVID pandemic dictated that people dropping off birds would remain outside the building, that we would wear masks and keep our distance. I set the carrier down and backed away. Diane reached into the carrier and said, “It’s nice and warm! Still wet, but warm.” She took the owl inside.
During the next week or so, there was some discussion about returning the little guy to its nest, but I couldn’t find it. A couple weeks after delivering the bird to Avian Haven, I was again at Mount Hope Cemetery when I saw a fellow birder, Ellen Campbell. She was looking up at a tall tree with her binoculars. She had been walking in the cemetery when she noticed some crows swooping down onto the tree. She investigated and found Mama Great Horned Owl, her nest and another nestling. I took a few photos, and in a couple, I could see the little nestling peering out over the branch.
I made note of the location of the nest and returned home. Looking at Google Maps satellite view, I determined the baby owl had been found about 400 feet uphill from the base of the nest tree. I wondered if it got there by itself or perhaps somebody else had found it and had carried it there. A week later, I returned to see about taking more photos. Both Mama and the nestling were perched together. This time, that little nestling didn’t appear so little. It was at least 2/3 as large as Mom was. Those little tykes grow quickly — and more quickly if Mama has only one mouth to feed and is a good hunter.
So, that was from late April into early June. By August, the youngster that I had delivered to Avian Haven had grown to adulthood. No longer a little furball, it had feathers and was a powerful bird in flight.
I was given the honor of releasing the owl back at Mount Hope Cemetery. One evening soon after sunset, my wife opened the box in the cemetery not far from where the nest was located and let the owl fly free. It flew silently along one of the paths and then turned and disappeared into the trees. It was a good feeling.
Richard Spinney lives in Brewer with his wife of 48 years. He retired from the U.S. Coast Guard after 20 years’ service, sold real estate for 23 years while also teaching adult ed algebra for 10 years, was a contributing editor of The Maine Genealogist for a few years and the treasurer of The Maine Genealogical Society for 14 years. He has volunteered for Avian Haven since the summer of 2016.