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PAWS Mailing Address:
PO Box 1037
Lynnwood WA, 98046

PAWS Street Address:
15305 44th Ave W
Lynnwood, WA 98037

                                                                                                March 9th, 2005
Kevin Mack

Eyes in the Back of His Head
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On February 3rd, I was standing in the PAWS Wildlife Center exam room looking down into a cardboard box. A moment earlier, I had opened the box to find a six-inch tall bird facing away from me. The bird's gray-brown plumage was speckled with tiny white spots, and white bars accented his dark brown tail. His was the unmistakable color pattern of a woodland bird that prefers to remain hidden, but it afforded him no stealthy advantage as he stood on the bright white pillowcase that lined the bottom of the box. On the back of the bird's head, a pair of bold, black markings ringed with white stood out in stark contrast to the otherwise drab pattern.
Pine Siskin
When you are small, it pays to have eyes
in the back of your head.
The marks bore an uncanny resemblance to a pair of eyes, and they were clearly meant to be seen as such by predators who prefer to approach unwary prey from behind. The bird in the box turned to face me with his real eyes, and now I could see his white breast streaked with brown, as well as his hooked bill, flecked with bits of pink from a recent meal. Although his small size made him potential prey for many animals, he himself was a predator. He was a Northern Pygmy Owl, and he was completely unaware of the irony of his situation. This little owl that deceives would-be predators with his fake eyespots had been brought to PAWS due to an injury that occurred after his real eyes had deceived him.

A few hours before the pygmy owl arrived at PAWS, he had been hanging out in Sultan, WA on the property of a kind-hearted woman named Agnes. Agnes was not aware of the owl's presence on her property until she heard the audible "thump" of the bird hitting her house. She went outside to investigate and, with a little help from her dog, Agnes found the diminutive predator lying on his back below her window. As Agnes picked the owl up, he attempted to fly away, but his collision with the window had taken a toll. The bird simply fluttered to the ground, and Agnes picked him up once again. Since he was clearly in need of assistance, Agnes brought the bird to PAWS where he was entered into the database as case #05-0092.

Pine Siskin
A front view of pygmy owl
05-0092 shortly after he
arrived at PAWS.
After being admired by the Naturalist, pygmy owl 05-0092 received a full physical examination. The examination revealed that the bird was suffering from head trauma, but he had no broken bones. A slight abnormality was discovered during the owl's eye exam, but it wasn't clear whether or not this was related to the window collision. The owl was given fluids to help with his shock, and he was housed in a darkened, indoor cage to allow him time to recover from the head trauma.

Two days after being admitted, the pygmy owl was showing signs that he was feeling better. He was far more alert than he had been at admission, and he had regained his ability to fly. He was moved to an outdoor flight cage to continue his recovery, and to further assess his abilities.

Pygmy owl 05-0092 flew well in the flight cage, but some concern remained over the state of his vision. His behavior in the flight cage was somewhat difficult to interpret. One of the pygmy owl's primary defenses is to sit completely still. If this is done on a tree branch, the owl's cryptic coloration makes it nearly invisible. When PAWS staff entered the pygmy owl's flight cage, he often sat completely still, but he did so on an exposed perch in the center of the cage.
Pine Siskin
PAWS Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. John
Huckabee examines the pygmy owl's eyes.
He did not respond when approached, but it was unclear whether this lack of response was due to a vision/awareness deficit, or if he was just exhibiting normal behavior in an unfamiliar setting.

The pygmy owl's behavior in the flight cage changed over the course of a few days. He began to take evasive flights when staff entered his cage, and he seemed far more alert and wary. To help alleviate any lingering concerns about the bird's vision, veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Tom Sullivan graciously volunteered to examine the pygmy owl. Dr. Sullivan noted a small cyst on the iris in the owl's left eye, but his opinion was that there were no abnormalities that should interfere with the bird's vision. The pygmy owl further supported Dr. Sullivan's opinion by successfully passing a live prey test. With the staff having no remaining doubts about his abilities, it was time for the owl to go home.

On February 18th, pygmy owl 05-0092 was once again face to face with Agnes. In a release box that Agnes had just opened, the owl was standing on a perch and looking up at her as she smiled. PAWS staff member Cindy Kirkendall, photographer Paul Bannick, and I stood close by. Uncertain what to make of the situation the owl fell back on his tried-and-true defense behavior of simply sitting still. Agnes scooted away from the box, and out of the owl's line of sight. Several minutes passed.
Pine Siskin
Northern Pygmy Owl
05-0092 sits on a cedar
branch at his release.
Photo by Paul Bannick
I instructed Agnes to slowly approach the box and tilt it so the owl would see the trees nearby. As the box tipped, the owl responded immediately and flew about 20 feet to a cedar branch. Now out of reach of the four humans who were watching him, the pygmy owl relaxed and began to assess his surroundings.

As the pygmy owl looked around, it really was difficult at times to tell which direction he was facing-a testament to the effectiveness of the "eyespot" markings on his head. The owl flew to a higher branch on the opposite side of the tree, much to the annoyance of a Winter Wren hiding in a patch of Oregon grape below him. The wren began chattering irritably, but he did not dare poke his head out of the dense foliage in which he was hiding. The wren was wise to stay hidden, as the predator that was in the branches above him has been known to kill and eat birds as large as Steller's Jays. A wren caught out in the open would not provide him with much of a challenge. The owl occasionally glanced down in the wren's direction, but did not seem interested in trying to make a meal of the tiny chatterer. Perhaps realizing that the owl was not currently seeking a meal, the wren's alarm calls eventually ceased. The three other spectators and I observed and photographed the owl for several more minutes, fully appreciating the rare gift of being in the presence of this amazing bird. We then repaid the pygmy owl by giving him the gift of our absence as he reclaimed his life.

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Wild animals released between February 23rd and March 8th, 2005:

1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
3 Rock Pigeons
1 Red-breasted Sapsucker

28 wild animals have been released since the beginning of 2005.

      All rights reserved. 2005 Progressive Animal Welfare Society