Monday, March 9, 2015



                                                           Ainslie Sheridan copyright 2015

       Why a snow ride like no other?  To start off, it turned out to be short, very short.  The day before we had also gone out, but that ride lasted over an hour.  Zoe, our Windflower student, had scanned the pond seeing nothing but a blank canvas of snow.  This day however,  Zoe glanced back in the direction from where we had just come.  She spotted a dark shape on the pond surrounded by a series of impressions left in the snow.  The silhouette had two points that looked like they could be tufts,  maybe an owl but it wasn't moving.  Fallen sticks and branches with leaves can often assume a variety of shapes making them appear to be something other than what they are.  We needed a closer look.

       Zoe, myself, and Aubrey, the other student on our ride, retraced our tracks to stop on the trail nearest the shape.  Closer still, we were certain it was an owl and that it was holding up an injured wing.  Whether it was alive we still didn't know.  I handed Elementa's reins to Aubrey and, in the direction of the bird, waded through hip-deep snowdrifts.  It was an owl, a Great Horned Owl! As I approached, its head swiveled towards me like a gun turret. Ten yards away now, I stopped.  I didn't want to get any closer until we had something to catch and transport it. 

       I'd forgotten my phone, so I had Aubrey call my house to tell my husband to call Dave, who is the most go-to neighbor anybody could wish for.  I'd asked if he could bring a blanket.  In about thirty minutes Dave arrived, beach towel in hand.  Oops, I had asked for blanket but something got lost in translation.  Remember what happened when you played "Telephone" as a kid?  

       Those talons would make short shrift of the towel, despite images of sunbathing alligators on it.  So Aubrey rode off to get a horse blanket.  (Zoe had already left to get hot water in case the owl had become locked in the ice.)  Meanwhile, Dave and I decided to approach the owl from opposite directions.  Once more,  I stepped out onto the ice and came up from behind the owl, hoping to discourage it from going further out on the pond. 

       The owl fluffed itself up and clacked its beak at me.  This YouTube of three Great Horned Owls depicts how she behaved and sounded:  

       We immediately saw the cause of its distress: the left wing was wrapped up in one end of monofilament fishing line, the other end still caught up in a tree.  I bit the line in half with my teeth while Dave held on to it below so we could still have control of the owl. The poor thing tried to fly away but to no avail.  

       Female raptors are larger than males, and since I had now seen this owl up close, from this point on I'll refer to her with a feminine pronoun.  This poor owl was now not only in pain from the fishing line and, perhaps, an impaled hook, but also terrified because of our presence.  She needed to be covered.  Aubrey had yet to return with a blanket, so Dave and I managed to get her talons caught up in the towel.  I quickly tossed my jacket over her, knelt down on all fours, and tried to contain her.  She struggled to escape but I kept shifting my jacket to keep whatever part of her body began to appear.  Head and feet were what I had to corral the most frequently, but it was like plugging up a badly leaking dike.  No sooner did I take care of one leak than another appeared.  It wasn't constant, however.  There were periods of time when she was completely still.  I worried that I might suffocate her in the snow, so I held her down as lightly as I could.  I could see by the slight rise and fall of my jacket that she was breathing.


       From the time I first straddled her to the time Aubrey arrived with a blanket and Dave with a box, I had been with her for at least an hour.  Aubrey and I managed to roll her into the horse blanket without getting slashed or bitten.  We were then able to slide her into the box.  We waded through the snow and walked back to my farm.  It was not quite a half a mile, but because of the deep snow I felt like I was hiking to the Yukon.

       By the time we'd gotten back to my house the entire evolution had taken over two hours and we were all exhausted.  I would have preferred to put her under a heat lamp in my chicken coop for the night and take her to the Wildlife Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine the next day, but heavy snow was in the forecast.   Besides, what if she did have a fishhook caught in her? It would have been cruel, and possibly harmful to her recovery, to make her spend the night at my farm.  We managed to roll her out of the box and into a pet carrier.  I quickly changed out of my wet clothes, loaded her in the car, draped a towel over the carrier for security, and off Zoe and I went.


       When I called Tufts, I learned that because it was Sunday the Wildlife Clinic was closed, and that I should hand her in at the small animal hospital.  After forty-five minutes we were there.  The first flakes of yet another vicious Massachusetts snowstorm were beginning to fall.

        The woman at the emergency desk immediately called a vet tech.  I lifted the towel off so they could see the owl.  By then a small crowd had gathered to catch a glimpse of this beautiful creature with incredible eyes.  I relayed our rescue tale.  The tech said they would page the on-call wildlife vet tech who would place her in an incubator to bring her body temperature up, and most likely one of the wildlife vets would be called in.  I could phone the Wildlife Clinic the next day to see how she had fared.

       However, that didn't happen.  We got nearly fifteen inches of snow, and all of Tufts was operating on a skeleton crew so no one picked up the phone that day.  I couldn't find out how the owl we now called Amelia, after the other unfortunate aviatrix, was doing. I had to wait until the following day, but it was worth the wait. Jessica, a Wildlife Program Assistant, told me that Amelia had been sedated and operated on the day after we brought her in.  She indeed had a fishhook lodged in the juncture of her wing and scapular bones in her chest, and the hook was surgically removed. In her struggle to free herself she had sustained a large laceration making me feel so badly that we had no doubt made it worse by hanging onto the fishing line until we could get the towel and jacket over her. Nonetheless, they were optimistic:  the damage appeared to be limited to the laceration site.  She was alert, on antibiotics, and appreciative of the many mice she was being offered.

       They planned to operate on her again that afternoon to remove the dead tissue from the wound site.  They then cleaned it with manuka honey, a honey from the manuka bush that grows in New Zealand and Australia.   Most kinds of honey have some antibiotic properties, but this kind of honey is especially strong in that category.  Jessica told me that if Amelia continued to improve we could pick her up and release her back by the pond. They expected she would be at the Wildlife Clinic at least a couple of weeks.u Eventually, she would be put in a flight cage to test her flight skills and prepare her for release.

       All of us, Dave, Aubrey, Zoe, my husband, and I, as well as our friends who knew about Amelia, were happily hopeful.  Zoe and her mother baked cupcakes in honor of the rescue:

        I started reading about Great Horned Owls.  When I was growing up on Long Island we called them Hoot Owls.  They are North American's largest owl and an Apex predator, which means that if they make it into adulthood they have no natural enemies. Ninety-six percent of their fatalities are caused by man--hunters, traps, eating rodents that have ingested rat poison, vehicles, barbed wire, and, of course, fishing line and hooks.  This is a tragedy not only for the owl but for its ecosystem.  Mesopredators (mid-level predators), examples of which are skunks, raccoons, and foxes, while not the usual diet of the Great Horned Owl, do get killed by them.  The talons of the owl can exert five hundred pounds per square inch, so they can dispatch animals five times their size. (Glad I didn't know that while holding Amelia under my jacket.) With an apex threat absent, mesopredators spend more time eating than hiding, their numbers flourish, and they diminish the strength of the next link down in the food chain, and the debilitating effects continue on down the links.

       We very much wanted Amelia back, not only because she was a gorgeous and majestic creature who deserved to live, but also our ecosystem needed her.  A week later I called Jessica at the Wildlife Center to find out when Amelia might be ready to return home.  I learned she never would.  Though the veterinarians had been cleaning the site and wrapping her in a fresh manuka bandage each day Amelia was not healing as hoped.  The many hours she'd spent with her wing held up and out by the fishing line had allowed the cold air to freeze her flesh by way of the fish hook.   Muscles, tendons, and nerves at the wound site had been rendered useless by frost bite.  She would never fly again.  Amelia, Jessica said, had been euthanized the previous day.

       We were all devastated.  The initial news had been cautiously optimistic, and we were so looking forward to the prospect of releasing the imperious and magnificent Amelia back to her home. I know we tried, that's what we told each other, and that's what friends told us, but it was little consolation.  It was a needless, thoughtless, and cruel loss--to us, our little ecosystem, and, of course, to poor Amelia.  Whenever I see boys with their rods on Nagog Pond, I will tell them what fishing line and hooks, improperly cast and disposed of, cost a glorious and environmentally necessary creature.

        My next blog entry will tell about another bird, far less charismatic than Amelia, and regarded by many as a pest.  

       Thank you for reading The Windflower Weekly.  See you soon.

                       -- Ainslie

The Wildlife Clinic at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine depends heavily on volunteers and donations.  The work many selfless hours to save the animals brought to them.  Because of the terrible winter we had they are currently overloaded with patients.  If you can give them some time and/or money, please do.
Here is their address and phone number:

Tufts Wildlife Center
The Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
Tufts University
200 Westboro Road
Grafton, MA 01536

Phone: 1 (508) 839-7918