A bad year for island’s owls | Island Wildlife | Sept. 2

Through the centuries, we humans have used many names for these strange birds: monkey-faced owl, ghost owl, church owl, hobgoblin or hobby owl, delicate owl, and, yes, the death owl.

Three of them are watching me right now. There they stand, on top of their nest box in our flight cage, beautiful and mysterious, silent and still. They are barn owls.

These three came to us as fuzzy, white babies, little alien-looking puffballs with small, dark beaks and obsidian eyes.  Separated from their nests and their parents, these three owls, two of whom are siblings, needed our helping hand. We were happy to oblige.

I like to inject some humor into each of my columns; but there is nothing funny or amusing about barn owls. Instead, locking gazes with a barn owl’s depthless eyes is akin to taking the hand of a grizzled monk and letting him guide you towards the secrets of life.

Somehow, someway, these owls have a grace and calm that equates to deep wisdom.

This has been the year of the owl at West Sound Wildlife. Since last September, 31 owls have passed through our hospital doors. In a normal year, we might take in one or two barn owls. But this year we’ve had eight barn owl patients.

Owls come to us for many reasons. They are often hit by cars, especially barred owls. When they spot that mouse scurrying through the field, or across the road, they lock on like guided missiles.

Nothing can break their attention on their target, not even the Toyota Tundra speeding down the highway right towards them.

We’ve actually had owl patients that hit the car, meaning they flew into the side of the car as it went by rather than the car hitting them. Sometimes I wonder if the mice purposefully run out in front of cars. Now that would be a smart mouse.

Seriously, though, lots of owls get killed by cars. Often it’s because a mouse was on the side of the road chowing down on an apple core or smoking a cigarette butt that someone threw out of their car. Keeping that litter in your car can save an owl’s life.

You can also save an owl’s life by not using rat poison. Poisoned rats or mice tend to wander about listlessly. A human’s poisoned rat is, for an owl, a free happy meal on short stubby legs. Unfortunately, instead of ketchup, these happy meals are flavored with a tasty poison.

This year, we’ve had three cases come through our doors involving poison. One, a barred owl, had eaten a rodent that had swallowed rat poison in a person’s yard. It was touch and go with this owl for a long time, but it made a miraculous recovery. Sadly, most poisoning cases don’t turn out so well.

Another owl in the hospital right now is very special. When I step into her small enclosure, swathed in pine boughs, I have to spend time looking around for the small piece of wood that is in fact an owl with pearl-sized eyes that are staring straight into my eyes. This 5-inch-tall, brown pygmy owl is always stretched to her full height, standing straight and tall like a strangely perpendicular branch.

I can’t help but think of this owl as cute. Not only is she very small, but she has a charming round face and brown spotted wings.

Northern pygmy owls also have two large, black, almond-shaped marks on the back of their heads that look like the eyes on an alien Halloween mask. Yes, they truly have eyes in the back of their heads.

The three barn owls are still staring at me, the smallest one peeking out from behind the largest. They haven’t moved, twitched, or blinked an eye. They haven’t made any noise.

All they’ve done is stare into my soul and helped me to touch a bit of the wild and wise that is all around us. We will soon set them free to make their own way in the world.

I hope they will avoid the roads and the happy meals. Maybe they’ll get lucky and find a nest box that you’ve put in your yard. They’ll live their happily, sharing their grace with you and clearing your yard of rodents.

Kol Medina is executive director of the West Sound Wildlife Shelter.

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