On Saturday, February 2, I was standing on a streamside path in a forested Tacoma park. It was a cool, overcast day, and the chilly air was filled with the scent of recently deceased salmon that had completed their final journey in the nearby waters of Swan Creek. To my left stood PAWS wildlife volunteer Sheri Clark. Directly ahead of me, wildlife volunteer Michelle Lee stood in a small clearing next to a cardboard pet carrier. All of our faces were turned skyward, scanning the trees for crows, Great Horned Owls and any other potential threats to the being that would soon be exiting the pet carrier. A Red-tailed Hawk flew into view and landed in a tree at the top of a hill behind us. A group of previously hidden crows responded immediately. Cawing and dive-bombing, they dislodged the hawk from his perch and pursued him out of sight. Quiet fell over the forest and the stage was set for a peaceful release.
This Barn Owl arrived at PAWS on December 29 after being found alongside a road in Tacoma.
I signaled Michelle to open the pet carrier. As she did so, I caught a brief glimpse of movement as the feathered head of a Barn Owl turned to face her. After the initial activity, the bird was still. I imagined the experience the owl must have had on December 29, during his last free flight in this area. A night of hunting mice and voles had gone terribly wrong when the bird flew low across nearby Waller Road. He likely saw nothing more than blinding headlights as a car bore down upon him, and then all sense was lost in the pain of impact and traumatic injury. Rendered flightless by his injuries, the owl was captured by a concerned citizen. He was then picked up and transported to PAWS by the same volunteer who had just opened the cardboard carrier to return him to his home.
Several minutes passed. Believing that the owl had not fully grasped his situation, I instructed Michelle to tilt the carrier so that the bird could get a better view of his surroundings. Nothing happened. Michelle let the box rest on the ground again and stepped back to the trail. We continued to wait with growing anticipation.
Despite serious injuries, the owl fully regained his flight abilities.
One day prior to his release, the Barn Owl had been X-rayed to document the extent of his recovery. As Dr. John Huckabee and I looked at the X-rays, we both marveled at the fact that the owl was even able to fly. He had suffered a fractured left coracoid bone (a specialized bone in birds that runs from the collar bone to the breast bone) and a shattered left scapula (shoulder blade). Both bones had healed but they were displaced, and they no longer held their original shapes. The owl seemed completely unhindered by his misshapen bones. In fact, he flew so well in the PAWS flight pen that he barely seemed hindered even by gravity. His flight was powerful and untiring. Had I not seen him lying on the X-ray table with my own eyes, I would have believed that there was a mix-up, and the films that I had been looking at actually belonged to a different bird.
At his release, the Barn Owl required a little persuasion to exit his transport box.
As eager as the Barn Owl had been to demonstrate his flight skills at PAWS, he was extremely reluctant to take to the air once the barriers had been removed at his release site. Fearing that the crows we had seen earlier would soon be returning from their neighborhood hawk patrol, I asked Sheri and Michelle to give the owl a little more encouragement to fly away. They both approached the carrier and tilted it onto its side. I caught glimpses of the owl as he shifted position and did his best to confront the humans that were attempting to convince him that the trees were a better place for him than a box. Finally realizing that his threat posture was not having the desired effect, the owl switched from fight to flight mode and exited the carrier with a powerful stroke of his wings.
After exiting the carrier, the owl flew low for 50 yards and then suddenly gained altitude. He came to rest about 30 feet up in the branches of a large maple tree. As he landed, three crows cawed overhead and briefly flew in for a closer look. The crows apparently found the Barn Owl less threatening than a Red-tailed Hawk. After a few more half-hearted complaints they went about their business and left the owl in peace.
Exiting the carrier, the Barn Owl flew free once again.
The Barn Owl sat on his perch for several minutes. His head turned in all directions as he assessed both his new surroundings and the sudden change in his circumstances. I don't know whether or not the bird understood anything at all about what had happened to him. I don't know how it felt to be him, sitting there on that maple branch with his life back under his control. I only know how it felt to be a human standing next to a stream and watching him regain his freedom. As he took flight once again and disappeared into the forest, my spirit soared with him.