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Beth Girdler: Doing It Naturally
Beth Girdler
Beth Girdler
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is a naturalist based in Ayer's Cliff, Quebec.

Her previous columns are archived HERE.

Posted 04.23.01
Ayer's Cliff, Quebec

BETH GIRDLER

THE GREAT HORNED OWL RESCUE

I got a call from a friend of mine, Gill Côté. Gill is an artist and birdwatcher who has the great fortune of living beside a river.

"Beth, there's something across the river on my neighbor's lawn, and I think its an owl!"

That morning, Gill looked out her kitchen window at the swallows swooping and feeding over the water. A large dark object lying on the snow of her neighbor's property caught her eye. The object moved and she could see a head with tall tufted ears, which "looked like that of a small lynx." With binoculars, she found she was looking at a great horned owl, one of our largest nocturnal birds of prey. Not what you'd expect on the ground during the day.

Gill wisely decided to observe the bird awhile before doing anything. Occasionally wild animals become lost, disoriented, or have a minor collision with the likes of a car windshield or window. If you give these animals space, they will get their bearings and move out as soon as they are able.

Wild animals of any kind should not be approached without a great deal of caution for two simple reasons.

If you don't know what you are doing you may inadvertently harm the animal.

The animal may also inadvertently harm you. As a child, I once managed to grab a meadow vole with my bare hand. The cute little thing immediately sank its amazingly long sharp teeth into my thumb and the wound bled profusely for some time. Needless to say, I dropped the vole like a hot potato and spent an anxious few days privately nursing my hurt and watching for signs of rabies.

By noon however, the owl had not moved. What was worse was that it had by then attracted the attention of some crows, which were buzzing it mercilessly. It is safe to say that crows detest owls. Great horned owls feed on a variety of small mammals (including skunks) and birds, including crows. When a crow spots an owl, it will give a special call alerting all other crows in earshot of the owl's presence. If you ever hear a cacophony of loud cawing, follow the sound. Undoubtedly you will find an owl at the centre of the confab. The crows pester the owl until it leaves their territory.

At this point, it became clear that the owl was unable to fly and as Gill said, she "went through the blue pages to find anyone who would help." As we were heading into the Easter holidays, she could reach no one over the phone and decided to call me.

I am sincerely happy she did. Like Gill, I knew this bird was in trouble. I arranged to meet her at the neighbor's and made a quick call of my own. Rick Caton, also living in Ayer's Cliff, is not only an award-winning bird carver, he is a naturalist who, as it turns out, had worked at the same national park I had. Rick, I knew, had experience handling birds of prey. I caught him at home, explained the scenario, and he was ready to go in a few minutes.

The rescue team assembled, I loaded my boots, leather gloves, my son Colin, and his friend Devvyn into the car and drove to Rick's. Rick grabbed heavy leather gloves and a long-handled fish-landing net for the job. Off we went on our mission of mercy.

When we arrived, Gill pointed out the owl, resting on the snow maybe 40 feet from us and eight feet from open water. As soon as it became aware of us its head swiveled round and we were met by a pair of huge amber eyes. "Yup, that's a great horned all right!" said I.

Rick quickly realized that the biggest danger was that of spooking the owl into the water and surmised that we should attempt an approach upriver from the side. With the two boys quietly watching from above, Rick - glove on, net at the ready - and Gill and I bringing up the rear, we moved in slowly. All was going well until Rick was within 10 feet of the owl. It became alarmed and tried to move away. Due to an unknown injury, it was unable to bear weight on its right foot. The bird limped a few uneven steps then tumbled head over heels (or whatever owls have), landing on its back only a few feet from the water. Wasting no time, Rick lunged forward through thigh-high snow and deftly brought the net down over the owl just before it rolled into the water and a certain death.

Returning to us, owl cradled in the net, Rick very carefully made a quick grab and secured both its legs in one hand. Equally carefully, we untangled the mesh from the owl's two-inch long scimitar talons - impressive weapons of destruction designed to inflict fatal wounds on unsuspecting prey. As you can imagine, I maintained a healthy respect for the pointy ends as I unwound strands of filament.

Rick carried the owl by the legs, the bird flapping and clacking its beak, up to Gill's car where, in one smooth movement, he deposited it into a dog carrier and shut the door.

Back at Gill's house I made a few calls and got the number for the raptor rehabilitation centre in St-Hyacinthe. The vet there sent someone to pick up the bird. Gill was told that the owl was in relatively good shape and probably had a good chance of recovery. Once healed, the bird was to be released in the same area it was taken from.

A good deed done, Gill commented that it is hard to know when to interfere with nature, but that she felt that since she spotted the bird she was meant to do something for it.

These situations make for great stories but in general, I try to discourage interference unless you are an expert or have expert advice. Fourteen years ago I rescued a newly fledged great horned owl from a pair of farm dogs. I managed to return the young owl to its siblings and safety. What I should also mention is the fact that I narrowly missed a swipe from a lovely set of talons.

For my part, I am always thankful for a chance to see a wild animal up close. I am hopeful that this gorgeous, powerful bird will be healed and returned to our region where it will feed on skunks, crows and sundry and live out its natural life at the top of the food chain.

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