Great Horned Owl - A Patient Story

By Michele Wellard, Assistant Director


This is the story of a Great Horned Owl and his initial treatment at the wildlife center. A caring member of the public was concerned enough to call us when she found him on the ground and follow our instructions for capturing and transporting him. She brought him in a large plastic tub.

I opened the container, carefully looked inside, and saw those huge yellow eyes looking up at me. He was beautiful, but he looked weak.

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Director Rick Schubert and I examined him. First, my Rick held those dangerous feet (Red Tailed Hawk talons can hurt you, but Great Horned Owl talons can put you in the hospital) while I prepared fluids to give him. Rick said the owl was emaciated and dehydrated. Suddenly, we saw the feather flies on his body. Feather flies, also called hippboscids, are evil. They dart and scurry around and you see them for a second, and get ready to grab one, and they go bury themselves deep in the feathers again, disappearing. First, Rick grabbed a fly and smashed it with his thumb. CRACK, it went, spewing the owl’s blood on the white exam table sheet. Then I saw one and grabbed it and did the same thing with my thumb. CRACK.  The blood spewed, and I swear the thing came back to life. I had to take my thumb and mash and mash and mash it onto the white sheet to finally kill it.

I got out the feather lice/fly spray and sprayed the owl all over, under the wings, on his back, near his vent, all over. Then we went back to preparing the fluids. Suddenly, the flies got angry at the chemical killer, and started coming out of the owl en masse. They scooted all over the owl. They flew off him onto my shirt, into my Rick's eyes, into my mouth. I spit them out and killed them. Rick picked them off his cheek and shirt.  We worked on killing them with our fingers, Rick one handed since he still had the owl’s feet (the owl’s head was covered to reduce his stress). We killed about 40 feather flies with our fingers, leaving 40 bloody smears on the sheet, as they flung themselves off the owl and onto us.

Rick flipped the owl so his feet were down so I could access his back. I parted his feathers to give him an injection of fluids. His pink skin was covered in red feather fly bites. I wanted to cry for this poor creature.The flies continued to jump out and we continued to search and kill them. Then I parted the feathers on his neck and saw…maggot eggs.

Flies love to lay their eggs on a compromised, sick bird, and they go deep into the blood feathers (a blood feather is a feather that is still growing, so still has a blood supply). Rick removed as many maggots as he could physically with hemostats (metal grabbers)

Rick then transferred the feet to me  and I held them while he left the room to prepare some oral rehydration fluid, L-Glutamine, and Capstar (which kills maggots from the inside of the animal). I was super aware. I had the claws of one of the most powerful, dangerous animals we handle, and I was restraining him. It may seem strange I wasn’t wearing gloves. Not for bravado purposes, but your bare hands have more control. It’s easier for a powerful animal to slip out of hands you can’t feel.

So, while he was out of the room, it was just me and the owl. He was on his back, his head covered, with me holding his powerful feet. Flies were getting irritated and leaving his body, flying up into my face, smacking me in the eyes, hitting my tongue as I took a breath. I spit one out on  the floor as I remembered not to let those talons go. I was able to kill 5 or so flies as I held the feet with one hand.

Rick came back and we transferred the feet to him. He pried open the owl’s mouth and I inserted the long tube down his throat, made sure it was in place, and pushed the plunger. Then he put the owl face down and I gave him his fluid injection.

The poor dear owl, once the most fierce killer,  looked like he had given up. He must feel so sick, and on top of that, what he must perceive as predators are grabbing, poking and prodding him. His head slumped and he closed his eyes. I thought he might die. I try to convey to these patients, even though they can’t understand, “I won’t hurt you. I am trying to help you. I am sorry about this.”

Because we sprayed his feathers, they were wet. In his weakened condition, there was a danger of him becoming hypothermic . We put him in an incubator and covered it to make it dark. In a half an hour, I checked on him. He had lifted his head. He looked brighter. He started actually clacking his beak at me, the universal owl signal for “*@*&*) ”!

We had made some progress. 

We treated him for several days, and the owl started eating, perching, and hooting. After a few weeks, he really started to recover

Not too long after, he was released back into his wild territory.



Doves- Two for Two!

Baby bird season is over for the year. Last month, near the tail end of the season, I am happy to report that I was able to be part of getting two fallen baby Mourning Doves back into their nests, and reuniting them with their parents and siblings. That is, getting them back in their nest and back into their parents’ care (because both parents feed the babies when it comes to doves. And songbirds in general.) Although I love being a rehabber, and love taking care of baby birds, my real successes are getting babies reunited with their bird parents, who can do a much better job.

Call one – a very nervous woman who saw a baby bird on the ground. After a long discussion and description, I was able to ascertain they were doves (mother bird – beige/brown, larger than a robin, smaller than a pigeon; two babies – the number of babies almost confirmed it). The WHOLE nest fell down, and mama was sitting on the babies on the ground. IN other words, sitting ducks for predators, like cats. I instructed the woman to pick up the babies and the nest (mama bird would fly away when she approached) and put it in a container, like a colander or basket – something with drainage (because if she put it in a plastic bowl with no drainage, and it rained, the babies could drown), and hang it in the original tree. She was very scared to do this, so got her neighbor to do it. He picked up the nest and babies, and placed them in the tree in their basket.  Momma bird was frightened and watched from a bit far away.

The woman was scared she chased the mom away forever. I assured her that if she left the area, the mother bird WOULD come back to her babies. She called me in an hour – ‘the mother is still not with the babies!” ‘Be patient”, I said. The mother bird sees you as a predator who tried to eat her babies. She doesn’t understand you are trying to help. Mourning doves are prey – only. So they are super skittish.

An hour later, the woman called: “The mother is with the babies! She is feeding them again!”. I was so, so happy. Babies we DON’T have to take into the wildlife center are a bigger success.

Caller 2 – a woman nearby who found a bird on the ground, also a Mourning Dove. She couldn’t find the nest, and this was a bird, by description, who was too young to be out of it. The only thing she could do was bring it to the clinic. But, she didn’t drive. Turns out, she was my neighbor, and lived down the street from me, so I said I’d come over and check it out when I got home. When I got there, the baby was in a box and they had located the nest. Momma dove was in the nest with this baby’s sibling.

I said, “Great! I am going to re-nest this baby!” “WAIT!”, the woman said, “If you touch it, won’t the mom reject it?!” I explained that this is an old wives’ tale, and the momma dove has invested so much time in these babies, she won’t refuse them back. I picked up the dove, and gently plopped him back in his nest, next to his sibling. Momma flew away, but perched on a roof only a few feet away. I advised the humans to go in the house, and mom would come back.  The people were amazed. “I can’t believe you just picked up that baby bird and plopped him into the nest! You are a hero!”. But again, anyone could have done it, like the man in story one. You just have to know what to do. My neighbor reported that momma dove came back shortly and resumed caring for her brood. 

Two great successes today, and they didn’t even come into the clinic. I’m happy with that.



This blog post was written by Michele Wellard, Assistant Director of PMWC

A Dramatic Rescue with a Happy Ending!

Our first blog post is the story of a dramatic rescue at the Philly Metro Wildlife Center. Someone had to cut a dead tree down, but it had TWO holes in the trunk. The nice tree guy cut the trunk into pieces and brought them to us. The first piece of trunk was making sounds like baby red-bellied woodpeckers inside, but woodpecker parents don't just bore a hole straight into a tree--instead, they bore a hole in, then deep down. Specifically, narrow enough and deep enough that a raccoon can't get his arms down there, or a hawk can't reach his talons down there, to pull the babies out to eat them. In this case, no human could get a hand in there, not even Tyrion Lannister. So how did we get the babies out without hurting them? 

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First, we had to widen the hole. We started with a saw, cutting two longitudinal lines down, then using a drill to make holes across and then router-out the holes and remove the piece of wood. The rehabbers Rick and Michele have been doing this kind of work for a combined 31 years, so we know exactly how to do it without hurting babies. Don't try this at home! When we were done, it was wide enough for a woman to get her hands in. What did we find?

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With the hole widened, volunteer Moya Kinnealey, who has been with us for 13 years, was able to get her hands in and safely withdraw the babies--4 red-bellied woodpeckers! They were alive and doing well, and recently hatched! You can still see the egg tooth if you look closely. BUT--the story is not over yet...this tree had one more surprise for us!

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 Baby red-bellied woodpeckers! 

Baby red-bellied woodpeckers! 

This particular tree had TWO holes in it. The second contained a baby screech owl.

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This is a sad thing--two families disrupted, two sets of parents devastated, two different species unhomed. And screech owl nests typically have 3 or 4 babies, not 1, so the others must have fallen or jumped out beforehand, and are lost. However, through wildlife rehab we were able to salvage some of the situation and give some of these beautiful animals a second chance.

Below is a photo of the woodpecker babies after they have grown a bit, looking happy and healthy! The screech owl baby also did very well and was eventually released! A true success story!

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At Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center, our mission is to provide support and rehabilitation to injured and orphaned wildlife, and to inspire and educate people to care about and coexist with wildlife. We accomplish this work with the support of our dedicated volunteers and are purely funded through donations. Please help us accomplish our mission by sharing this blog post, following our stories, and providing donations of supplies or funding. Any questions? Please send an e-mail to info@phillywildlife.org