We heard the hooting all winter. Sometimes you’d get a glimpse of a wing or a dark shadow flashing by. Neighbors thought there must be a nest in the tallest tree between our houses.
This all added to the wonder when on an early Monday morning at the end of March we spotted the young great horned owl perched on an evergreen bush beside our backyard deck. Feathers with just a bit of fuzz framed intense eyes watching us carefully as we snapped iPhone photos and whispered about how amazing this was.
We stood mere feet away in awe that the bird we took to calling Owly was allowing us so close. Then awe turned to concern. Why would such a powerful bird let us so close? Why wouldn’t Owly fly?
A quick call to the Dane County Humane Society’s Four Lakes Wildlife Center gave us an answer.
Owly, who was about 6 to 8-weeks-old, was too young to fly and the only way down to our deck would have been to fall from the nest in a nearby treetop.
It’s a common problem.
Owls build bad nests, preferring to take over existing nests built by others. So as babies grow and the nest deteriorates, sometimes young owls end up on the ground, said John Kraak, one of the volunteers who works with the young owls.
“They just take over a nest,” Kraak said. “A couple of sticks together.”
The problem is so common that a dedicated pair of volunteers, Kraak and his renesting partner Michael Minardi, spend their spring and summer scaling trees to place young owls, hawks, songbirds and other young animals back in the family nest or into new sturdier nests volunteers provide.
My family would meet them the following night when Owly was reunited with its family in a tall pine between our house and the neighbors’.
As of Tuesday, Four Lakes had rescued 13 young owls this season, with one needing treatment before it can be renested, said Brooke Lewis, Four Lakes wildlife rehabilitation supervisor. Last year, 18 were successfully renested.
The Humane Society has done renesting since the wildlife center was started in 2002, but efforts have picked up in the past two years, Lewis said.
“Any time you take a bird and raise it in rehab, it’s never going to be as good as the wild,” Lewis said. Humans aren’t as good at teaching baby birds some skills they need to thrive in their natural environment.
There’s a lot of work to be done before a baby owl is safely placed back in its nest.
When my husband called the Dane County Humane Society about Owly, he was asked to send in a cellphone photo so staff at Four Lakes could determine if the owl was in distress. The answer was a quick yes. Owly was no longer perched on the deck railing but had laid down on it.
The wildlife rehabilitator then asked if we were comfortable bringing the young owl in. We were not so the rehabilitator drove to our home and picked Owly up.
Back at the center, Owly was given fluids, a good meal and was checked over to make sure the bird had not been injured in the fall from the nest, Lewis said.
The center carefully evaluates each owl found to make sure it is a good candidate for renesting – checking for injuries and signs that an adult owl is nearby to care for the young owl, Lewis said.
If the owl is fit and the situation right, Minardi and Kraak try to get the youngster back in the nest as soon as possible – generally within 24 hours.
The renesting process
The renesting process is pretty straightforward but impressive to watch.
Despite popular belief, owls and other birds typically won’t abandon their young because of human involvement in renesting, Lewis said.
Less than 24 hours after Owly was taken to Four Lakes, Kraak brought the young owl back.
After locating the nest, Minardi put on safety gear and tossed a line into the tree. An arborist for the city of Madison, he’s comfortable scaling the soaring trees that owls sometimes choose to nest in.
Meanwhile, Kraak worked with Owly, who sat in the surrogate nest the volunteers brought along to replace or supplement the existing nest. Generally, Kraak said, they use a wooden bushel basket filled with pine boughs. Kraak fed the young owl tasty treats to help keep it calm. (Think dead mice.)
Up in the tree, Minardi discovered that Owly wasn’t alone up there. There were two more young owls in a rickety nest. Mama owl made her presence known, flying over before landing in a tree across the street to watch the proceedings warily.
Once the bushel basket nest is raised up into the tree and secured to give the growing young owls more space, it was time to bring Owly home.
The rescued owl was placed into what Minardi and Kraak jokingly refer to as their “High Tech Renesting and Rescue Device” – a large bucket with air holes and lid.
Kraak secured the bucket carrying the young owl to a line Minardi has set up in the tree and Minardi pulled it up. At the top, Minardi, 40, carefully picked up Owly and placed the young bird securely in the new nest with its siblings.
The process takes about an hour.
“It’s very rewarding,” said Kraak, 53, who before partnering up with Minardi last year had free-climbed the trees for six years to renest owls, hawks and even an osprey. “It feels good.”
Like most of the wildlife center’s volunteers, Kraak and Minardi don’t have formal wildlife management backgrounds. Instead, they learn from experienced volunteers and on-the-job training at the center, they said.
While Minardi said he has not had an owl swoop at him during his renesting efforts, Kraak has.
“I have had them fly at me and try to knock you out (of the tree) at 50 mph,” Kraak said. “Then you just hug the tree.”
A retired Marine, Kraak jokes that renesting is now his adrenaline rush.
He got involved with the Humane Society eight years ago after adopting an injured dog there. When another volunteer couldn’t make a renesting, Kraak gave it a try himself.
Kraak, who works for the city of Madison’s fleet services, met Minardi when he came in to get some equipment repaired. Kraak was particularly interested in one of the city arborist’s ladders thinking he could use something like that to reach a particularly tricky nest.
When Minardi asked why Kraak was so interested, Kraak told him about the renesting program.
“I tried to keep from jumping out of my skin and saying ‘yeah, yeah I can do it,’” Minardi said.
“I’ve always had an affinity for raptors, owls especially,” he said. “Hawks are good luck.”
Minardi has a red-tailed hawk tattooed on his back – a tattoo that he partly credits for helping him recover from a serious fall in 2001 when he first started climbing trees. He fell about 40 feet, breaking two vertebrae, collapsing a lung and injuring his liver.
The EMTs joked he “must have wings on my back,” Minardi said.
Watching Owly grow
To ensure the renesting is a success, Four Lakes often relies on homeowners and other volunteers to monitor the nest to make sure no one falls out and that mama owl returns to care for the young, Lewis said.
We were told to listen for the parents’ hooting.
Night fell and all was quiet as everyone tried to give the owls space and listen. Then about 9:30 p.m., we heard the first hoots.
The next morning, three fuzzy, feathery little balls of owl could be seen in the nest. Even better, we could see the large, intense eyes of mama owl peering out at us from the branch just above the nest as she kept watch over her babies.
And that was my storybook ending to the Owly story.
But on April 10, 11 days after Owly was renested, a neighbor texted my husband saying a young owl was seen on the ground near a pile of brush in our yard.
It was nearly dark as we and one of our neighbors grabbed flashlights and searched the yard for the owl. Mama owl was clearly visible perched at the top of a nearby tree hooting at us loudly.
I nudged piles of leaves and peeked under shrubs half afraid of what I would find.
In the end, that night, we found absolutely nothing. I could just barely see what looked like two fuzzy, feathered puffballs in the nest. But the third baby owl was gone.
The wildlife center said they would send someone the next day.
We were not optimistic.
The next morning, my husband searched the backyard again. He found plenty of evidence that we were hosting owls — dismembered rabbit bits, feathers — but no young owl.
When Minardi arrived late that afternoon, however, my husband said it took him only moments to spot the young owl in a tree in a neighbor’s yard. The young owl was doing exactly what it was supposed to. It had become a “brancher”: no longer falling out of the nest but climbing down to explore the world and to soon learn to fly.