Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Wings of Owls

We have some wild days at work. Some are wilder than others, though.

One day, a few years back, a man comes in to the clinic clutching his Carhartt's coat, bundled into his chest. Since it is around 10 degrees outside, this is a bit unusual; in that weather, most people come in actually wearing their coats. The receptionist, C, looks at him and says, "May I help you?"

"Do you treat owls?" he asks, a slightly desperate look on his face.

As it happens, we DO treat owls - and other wild birds, should they arrive at our doors. At the time we were one of the few local clinics who held a wild bird permit, although this is no longer necessary in order to treat wild birds. Accordingly, the man was ushered into the treatment area carrying his bundle of Carhartt's, which turned out to contain a large and deeply annoyed great horned owl. The owl, most unfortunately, had gone for the bait in a leg hold trap and had gotten caught in the trap. The man, who was daily and diligently running his trap line (as required by law) had come upon the trapped owl, a good 20 miles from town. Distressed that he'd caught an animal he had not intended to, he deliberated about what to do. He might have decided on the "shoot, shovel and shut up" course of action - and no one would have been the wiser - but instead he took off his coat, threw it over the owl, corralled its beating wings and avoided its snapping beak, released it from the trap and bundled it snugly in his coat. Then he got back on his snow machine and drove back to town - in 10 degree weather, mind you, and coatless (and let me tell you, this is NOT a comfortable experience) - got the owl into his truck and drove it to our clinic.

Nice guy, and one who is willing to endure some discomfort to do the right thing. Gotta love that.

We de-bundle the owl, do a physical - the owl hissing and snapping the entire time, and making abortive grabs with the talons of the uninjured foot - install it in a cage in isolation, and give the guy back his coat.

"Will it be all right?" he asks me anxiously.

"Well, the injury to the leg is serious; that'll be an amputation, which makes it a non-releasable bird, because it won't be able to hunt properly. However, the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage has guidelines for amputees; below a certain joint on either the wings or the legs is acceptable, and this one falls into the "good" category. It'll become a teaching bird. So the upshot is that you've saved its life."

The guy looks relieved for a minute. Then his brow creases again.

"Do they like that? Being teaching birds?"

"Well, most of them adjust pretty well," I say, frowning thoughtfully. "But of course it's not a guarantee. Bird TLC screens them for that; the ones that don't adjust to public life, they usually keep in the hands of volunteers who are specially permitted. They have flight cages and so on for flighted birds, too, and try to do what they can for environmental enrichment." The man still looks doubtful. "It's a chance," I tell him. "Without you bringing her in, there would BE no chance."

He nods, accepting this, and departs in a little better frame of mind than he arrived in.

When it's time to amputate the owl's leg, we gather her up with a towel (and I'm only assuming she's a she, based on size). Birds are tricky under anesthesia; their airways are complex compared to those of mammals. For one thing, they have air sacs, which we don't; for another their airways are rather delicate. And of course they have different physiology. The consequence of all this is that bird anesthesia requires at least two people: One must keep a stethoscope on the bird's heart, listening without pause. The other must man the anesthetic machine, adjusting the gas flow as directed by the person with the stethoscope.

Naturally this is a bit nerve-wracking, so we divide up the tasks as seems best: me on the heart, Dr. J (a fast surgeon) cutting, and one of the techs manning the anesthetic machine. We mask down the owl, a tricky task as she is no more interested in having an anesthetic mask over her face than she was in being bundled out of the cage in a towel, and is inclined to attempt to bite through the rubber gasket on the edge of the mask. But the gas does its job and soon she is relaxing, her wings drooping open and her large golden eyes closing, their thin, papery lids hiding her fierce glare. In my ears her heart is fast but steady, relatively loud through the sturdy breast muscle. The leg is quickly prepped and Dr. J starts cutting.

I am listening intently to her heart, ignoring the hive of activity around her leg. "Turn it up," I tell the hovering tech, as the heartbeat grows louder and faster in my ears. "Okay, turn it down," I say a minute later as the beat goes softer, lighter, slower. Right about now I notice that the owl has lice, since a large, fat example of the species is now crawling leisurely across the back of my hand. Gah. But I can't move my stethoscope off the chest so I content myself with a little shudder and the knowledge that lice are species-specific, so even if this one runs strait up my arm and into the thickets of my hair, there will be no infestation: Just one creepy little bird louse to track down and murder.

"Turn it up... turn it down... turn it off!" I tell the tech, as the owl's heart goes to a feathery-thin, barely-audible flutter. A minute passes; the second hand is halfway through another sweep before I tell her, "Okay, turn it on again... turn it up...."

Dr. J is closing; the heavily-taloned foot, the leg bone a splintered mangle an inch above the toes, is discarded; it's a sad thing, trashing something so beautifully made, all symmetry and strength and sharp, strong talons, gracefully curved. But the foot has no blood supply, which means no healing is possible, so it is of no future use to the bird.

We inject the bird with antibiotics and turn off our anesthesia; I crush my visiting louse and roll the owl onto her side, ready to bundle her up in a towel to help keep her warm til she wakes up. But I cannot resist just once extending her wing. Quiet now as she sleeps, this is a marvel of grace and power, the feathers fanned in gorgeous overlap one atop the next, the long pinions showing the reach she will have in flight. Even completely still, it gives you a sense of movement, of grace on the air. The edges of the wing are impossibly soft; the reason for the owl's silent flight is that each feather has a finely-fringed edge, rather than the smooth, hard edges seen on the flight feathers of other birds. Evidently this microscopic fringing diffuses the air disturbance as the wing beats so that there is virtually no noise made by its passage.

After a moment I feel a slight tension in the wing. I release it and the owl draws it back slowly toward her body. She is waking. I gently wrap her in her towel and put her in her cage, then call Bird TLC; they have a volunteer in the neighborhood who will come pick up the owl that afternoon. That's a good thing, since we have no mice or rats on hand, frozen or otherwise, for her to eat.

When the TLC volunteer arrives, she is armed with gauntlets and a carrier for the owl. The owl, less than thrilled to see yet another person today, hisses and clacks her beak menacingly; she is already standing on her one remaining foot and half-spreads her wings, either for balance or in indecision as to whether she should attempt escape or murder. The volunteer, well used to such antics, waits patiently; after a minute the owl turns to the back of the cage, trying to shut us out. The volunteer reaches deftly into the cage, pinning the bird's wings in a gentle but firm grasp, and quickly transfers her to the carrier, which she then shrouds with a towel. The hissing and beak-clacking quiet immediately.

"Here's her treatment record," I say, handing it over. "She has lice, by the way," I add, in case the record isn't read immediately.

"Thanks for telling me," says the volunteer with a grimace. "We'll put her in isolation til we get rid of those, instead of in the general population."

A few weeks later I call TLC to see how the bird is doing. She is adjusting well, I hear; a young bird, she has taken to handling with relative ease. Her incision is healed and she is now louse-free. A flighted bird, she has been allowed the use of the flight cage, and she is eating well. As she adjusts, she will become an educational bird, going to nature centers and schools to teach people about predatory birds.

It's the best we can do for her; the foot was irreplaceable from the moment the trap snapped shut on it. The trap line was legal and well-maintained, and in truth it's uncommon for birds to get caught in trap lines. It's likely that it only happened this time because the bird was young and inexperienced. I sometimes wonder if salvaging these birds is the best thing for them; but I know from past history that some of them develop close bonds with their handlers. When I was in school we had a great horned owl in the Raptor Center that had cataracts. She was as hissy and touchy as an irritated rattlesnake, in part because her cataracts made people seem to spring into her face without warning, as a hand moved from her blind spot into her sight with no evident transition. I was leery of handling her (although I was fine picking up all manner of other birds, from barn owls to red-tailed hawks). However, when her handler arrived, her hissing feints calmed to his voice and she would shuffle cautiously to the front of the cage, looking for his gauntlet so she could step up, waving a foot uncertainly in the air for him to slip his arm under. The minute she felt the gauntlet under her foot she would grip it and step up, sidestepping down his arm til she felt the balance point on his fist. He would gather her jesses and bring her in close to his body, stroking her feathers and talking softly to her until she stopped gaping and snapping and started to fluff herself, and then they would stroll majestically out of the hospital and back to the raptor center, located across the parking lot behind the hospital. The handler was a big, beefy man, at least 6 foot four, but he had a way. He could soften his voice down to a soothing purr, and something about his measured, stately progress seemed to calm her easily-agitated nerves.

That was a good match, and without it the bird would be dead. She showed every sign that she was fond of her handler, letting him scruffle his fingers softly in her feathers, half-closing her eyes as he stroked and groomed her. On balance I guess I think that with the right bird/handler match, the teaching-bird route is preferable to the dead-bird route. It's hard to think of these birds, meant to be wild, living in captivity; harder still to think of the ones who are forever flightless when they are meant to soar. Still.... there is no question that people need to understand the value of these animals, so that we preserve their habitats and minimize the hazards to their survival, and there is truly nothing on this earth that will make you appreciate the incredible power of, say, a golden eagle, better than standing next to one and seeing it cast its sharp, piercing glance your way. There is no other way to really grasp the massiveness of such a bird, nor the latent power of its furled wings, nor the deadly beauty of beak and talon, unless you stand next to one, under its proud eye, and feel these things for yourself. There is an immediacy to that that makes you understand at once that this is a thing of value, something not to be lost. And for me, at least, it gives me a little atavistic shiver, fixed in that eagle eye; a reminder that should we perish as a species, the world would go on... but should we be here alone, the sole species remaining, we would die, bereft.

So I try, every so often, to think kind thoughts for the volunteers who take in these birds, who spend their time caring for them and teaching others about them. I try to think of the birds themselves, whose lives are spent not as they were born to be, but perhaps in a way that is worthy of them, even if not what nature intended. And I think of the kind of person who will drive 20 miles on a snow machine without a coat to give an owl a chance to survive, when he could have done otherwise in greater comfort and with no one knowing anything about it.

Kind of gives me hope.


Holly said...

what a marvelous post. I have a deep and abiding love for the wild birds and particularly the birds of prey. During the spring and summer I follow the blogs that track the Peregrins....what fascinating birds. Never miss, faster than a speeding bullet. I also scan the nature photographers net for birds of prey. Some really outstanding photographers there.

I would not feel too conflicted about the birds. I am sure they would rather live than not.

Della said...

"Do they like that? Being teaching birds?" Funny! What a sweet thoughtful man.

Carolyn said...

This is a beautiful post. I've been reading silently for a while and couldn't help but comment on this one.

Flo said...

What a touching story.

I'm the sort of person who isn't safe to drive through the Badlands because my nose is plastered to the windshield, looking up. I've always loved raptors, and for a while we lived on a hill with pastures below. Our telephone pole was used by everything from kestrels to Golden Eagles, and my uncle's farm has a shelter belt with a mating pair of Bald Eagles.

"Our" kestrels successfully raised a clutch of 6 chicks to the stage where they fledged out and were chasing the parents around looking for food. The male was missing some toes on his left foot, but still seemed to be a competent hunter. I have hopes your owl adjusts quickly.

A falconer friend says that the best time to get a bird from the wild, if you have to is before their first winter. Supposedly all first birds should be first year birds, as they are the most adaptable and have a strong understanding of what is food. And should the first time falconer lose the bird, it will have been helped through its first winter. (I wonder if the stress of finding enough food in winter is why the owl ended up in the trap in the first place- better a captive than starving to death).

The man's a hero, and I'm glad the bird is alive. On one level it is sad to see wild things who can't be left in or returned to nature, but for people who don't live where there are raptors in large numbers, places like TLC are invaluable for letting people see these birds and come to love them.

A couple weeks ago, we had a young Cooper's Hawk trying to break into our pigeon coop. To someone who doesn't have an abiding love and respect for birds of prey, that would also be a "Three S" situation. For us, it meant I went out with a camp chair and my dog to read a book by the cage until sundown, when the Cooper's left the tree s/he was watching from and went to roost for the night.

Britt said...

Great story! What year was this? Around 2001? If so, it's possible that this is one of the Great Horned Owls that lives at the Alaska Zoo. We call her Luna and she only has one foot. I'm a Bird TLC volunteer and love Great Horned Owls.

AKDD said...

Raptors really ARE amazing birds, and great horned owls seem to be an adaptable species: they occur on every continent except Antartica. I'm glad they and all their ilk have so many fans.... those who admire them, those who respect them, those who will give up their sleep to shoo them away from trouble, those who rescue and care for them.

Flo, interesting about the falconer's point of view, particularly the thing about age and adaptability. I didn't know that.

And that guy who brought her to us - whose name I'm not sure I knew in the first place, but if I did, I've long forgotten - he was definitely on the side of the angels. A good-hearted fellow, and quite brave to do the snow-machine trek coatless.... or maybe just incredibly tough. He IS an Alaskan, after all. We don't quibble about a little cold up here. Or if we do, we move out of state. :D

Britt, I don't remember the exact year, but that would be about the right time frame. IIRC, it was a right foot that we amputated - but as I didn't write this down at the time it happened and am working from memory, I might be wrong. (I was WAY more focused on her heart than her foot at the time!) Wherever she is, I hope she is well and happy. She was a fierce, beautiful creature, and I always hope such things thrive.

Glad everyone liked this story - and Carolyn, don't be shy - pipe up any time. Everyone else here does! :)

Dragon43 said...

Well, everyone said it all so I just will add, "Great job on the story."

Barb said...

Beautiful story!
And I agree with Holly, not to worry too much. Not only is it safe to assume that the bird would choose life in captivity over death, but it is SO important for zoos and other wildlife sanctuaries to continue to be able to provide up-close-and-personal wildlife encounters. Without that sort of exposure, our next human generation won't know or care anything about wildlife.