When birds of prey – owls, eagles, hawks, falcons and vultures — are found injured or displaced, they are taken under the wing of Soarin' Hawk, said Patricia Funnell, a veterinarian who has been with the 100 percent volunteer-driven Fort Wayne group nearly 16 years. The facility uses some owls and raptors to educate the public in live-bird appearances, and rehabilitates others for release into the wild when they are fully recovered.
Northeast Indiana boasts resident owls such as the great horned owl, the barred owl and the eastern screech owl. Winter owls include long-eared owls, short-eared owls, saw-whet owls and snowy owls, said longtime Soarin' Hawk volunteer Bob Walton of Huntertown, who makes educational presentations of the raptors to area schools and other groups.
“Everyone who works with the birds has a favorite story,” said Walton, who runs “Goin' Bats,” a bat rehab facility.
One of his favorite stories concerns Whodini, a gray phase eastern screech owl.
Many birds use their coloration and feather pattern as camouflage, Walton said, adding they will position themselves in a tree to blend in with the surroundings. Screech owls will often sit on a branch next to the tree trunk, pull in their feathers, close their eyes and stand as tall as possible, he said, so they look like part of the tree.
“Whodini is a one-eyed escape artist, often leaving his cage under mysterious circumstances, Walton said. “He was staying with me for a little extra attention after a visit to the vet. I had placed his cage on a table in the middle of our basement, where we also have storage shelves for our canned goods. On the second day of his visit with us, I found his cage empty but the door was closed.
“I started a frantic search, looking in the rafters, on top of stored junk, behind walls, etc., but to no avail. As I passed the shelves with the cans and jars of food, I noticed that something was out of place. Between the red bottle of ketchup and the yellow bottle of mustard was a tall, brown striped bottle … Whodini. He was chastised and returned to his cage with a second lock.”
One of the popular teaching owls at the facility is Mr. Peabody, said volunteer Dennis Oliver.
“He's an awesome blind barred owl who was struck by a car,” Oliver said. “His wings are not clipped, and if he could see, he would fly all over the place. He relaxes pretty fast and that makes him a great education bird.”
An owl is the only raptor that can fly noiselessly due to serrated flight feathers, which makes it easy to swoop down on unaware prey (insects, rodents, fish, rabbits, snakes etc.) without warning. Owls also do not construct nests, preferring instead to seek sheltered sites, such as abandoned nests in trees, underground burrows, caves or barns. Most owls are nocturnal (hunting only in darkness) although there are a few that are crepuscular (active during dawn or dusk) or diurnal (hunting during the day). These carnivores have excellent binocular vision, and can rotate their heads 270 degrees without moving their torsos. Their beaks and talons are especially critical in capturing their prey.
“A great-horned owl can exert up to 1,000 pounds per square inch,” Walton said, “and their talons are needle-sharp and probably have an area less than 1/100 of a square inch. That's why we use special Kevlar gloves when handling them.”
Visitors to Soarin' Hawk can view education owls and other raptors, however they are not allowed to see the birds in rehab, according to strict state and federal laws that vigorously protect the creatures' privacy.
State and federal officials say no one is allowed to see the rehab birds unless it is through one-way glass, Funnell said. “They are really tightening up the regulations. Unfortunately, we don't have one-way glass here; it is just what is required if a non-volunteer is going to take photos of the birds.”
It is, however, permissible to take pictures of the birds at presentations, such as the “Owls in our Backyard and Yours” presentation given recently by the Little River Wetland Project.
Walton was at the event with Apollo, a great-horned owl whose left wing was damaged at the wrist.
“Apollo has a wonderful attitude toward his caretakers that makes him an ideal candidate for presentations, and has proudly been shared at more than 50 programs a year,” said Walton, adding that releasing owls and other raptors back into the wild and educating others with the education birds is its own reward for being a rehabber.
As for those food scraps mentioned at the beginning of the story? Give them to your dog. Or, toss them into the garbage. Just don't toss them outside for the wildlife. Who knows how many owl lives you may be saving by this simple, humane act?
Learn more•According to the Soarin' Hawk Raptor Rehab flier, there are many reasons injured raptors may end up at the facility: being hit by a vehicle; collision with antenna towers, buildings or windmills; electrical shock from power lines; poisoning; attacks by cats; being shot with guns or arrows; getting caught in traps; illnesses such as West Nile virus or cancer; being trapped in barns or porches; or babies being blown out of nests.
•For more info, contact Soarin' Hawk Raptor Rehab, PO Box 13698, Fort Wayne, IN 46865