Grand Valley Audubon Society helps save, re-nest pair of owlets
Volunteers from the Grand Valley Audubon Society restored a bit of nature back to balance last month by rescuing a pair of owlets that had fallen from their nest.
The two well-feathered but still-flightless birds, estimated to be two weeks old at the time of the rescue, had been monitored since hatching by several GVAS members.
Great horned owls often use abandoned magpie nests but the valley’s been short of magpies since the West Nile virus epidemic several years ago.
And young owls are hard on nests, said Bob Wilson of the Grand Valley Audubon Society.
“They like to play king-of-the-mountain and they can really tear up a nest,” he said with a laugh. “But without magpies, there’s a shortage of owl nests. Somehow the adults found this ragged old thing and built their nest on top of it.”
But the nest, stuck an estimated 50-60 feet high in a cottonwood tree in the Lucy Ferril Ela Wildlife Sanctuary on Dike Road, wasn’t a match for the intense winds that pummeled the valley in late April.
When two GVAS members noticed the precarious-looking nest apparently had blown out of its tree, they went in search of the owls and found the two young ones alive and hiding under some leaves.
The birders called Wilson, who in turn called fellow GVAS member Steve Bouricius.
“Eileen (Cunningham, one of the initial owl spotters) told me, ‘These owls are coyote bait if we don’t do something,’ ” Wilson said. “I remembered that 15 years ago or so someone had rescued a pair of owls by putting them in a milk crate, so I got a ladder and a bunch of folks together.”
When Bouricius showed up, he had with him a larger crate.
“I was lucky Bob called me,” Bouricius said. “I heard about the milk crate and figured the owls might need something a little bigger and I had larger crate available. It was a great team effort.”
The birders picked two stout trees, built a sturdy wood platform for the new nest and Bouricius climbed the ladder with the two young owls.
“You read all these articles about what to do when you find a young bird and they always say, ‘Put it in a box,’ ‘’ Bouricius said. “What they don’t say is to put the baby bird back where you found it.”
Most adult birds don’t wander far when their young fall out of the nest and the adult owls were within 100 yards of the nest reconstruction, Bouricius said.
“One of the adults watched the whole thing,” Bouricius said. “I would say it was less than hour after we left that they were back on the nest.”
About a dozen GVAS members participated in the rescue and re-nesting, Wilson said.
Birds don’t have a well-developed sense of smell, so there’s no worry the adult bird will reject its young because they might have picked up human scent.
“And those little guys really start squawking when they get hungry, so the parents will find them in a hurry,” Wilson said.
It’s not uncommon in spring for the Division of Wildlife to get calls about birds too young to fly wandering around on the ground.
Sometimes these birds are sparsely feathered nestlings and dependent on their parents for warmth and food.
Other times, such in the case of the two owls, the bird might be feathered fledglings, able to hop or jump, but their flight feathers not yet long enough to fly.
According to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, most so-called “abandoned” baby birds are healthy fledglings with a parent close by, ready to return as soon as you leave.
The Cornell website said baby birds may be returned to the nest or left safely on the ground where the parents will feed the youngsters until they are able to fly.
Trying to raise a nestling is rarely successful and in most cases it’s illegal, a violation of the Migratory Bird Act.
“We have a lot of baby bird kidnappings this time of year,” Bouricius said. “Most of the time we tell people to let nature take its course.”
That first year is a tough time for baby birds, Bouricius said, with an estimated 80 percent dying in their first year.
That doesn’t include the estimated 1 billion or so songbirds killed each year in the U.S. by domestic and feral cats.
“Our first responsibility is to protect the nest and avoid disturbance of the young before they fledge,” Bouricius said. “Sometimes, well-meaning folks will make decisions that can have tragic consequences for wildlife.
“In general, it’s best that people not interfere with wildlife without first checking with the Division of Wildlife.”
People interested in wildlife rescue can learn more at: http://wildlife.state.co.us/Volunteer.