Rescued baby screech owls ready to leave the nest at Phoenix Wildlife Center
By By Barbara Pash
Oct 02, 2014 at 6:10 AM
They are brothers from the same nest. Found last Memorial Day weekend, they were perhaps 3 days old at the time, covered in fluffy white down and no bigger than a thumbprint.
This week, thanks to the quick thinking of Charlie Conklin and his family— who discovered them on a path outside Chestertown — and the dedicated efforts of Kathleen Woods of the Phoenix Wildlife Center, the two screech owls are being released into the wild.
It's not the first, or last, animal rescue by the North County's Phoenix Wildlife Center, a two decades-old nonprofit organization. The donation-driven, volunteer-run group heals and rehabilitates native Maryland wildlife, from bats to songbirds, bald eagles to owls and small mammals such as rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks.
But to Conklin, a 77-year old Glen Arm resident, it has been a wondrous adventure.
"To find these little creatures and have them grow to maturity, there aren't as many heart-warming experiences as this," said Conklin, a retired manager of Bethlehem Steel and president of the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy, a North County environmental group.
Actually, the two screech owls won't reach full maturity until they are a year old. But they are big enough to fend for themselves. As part of their rehabilitation, center director Woods and her crew of a dozen-plus volunteers taught them how to hunt, substituting for the owl-parents that would have done so.
Screech owls get their name from their piercing call. They are small, typically 7 to 10 inches tall and with a wingspan of 18 to 24 inches. Their brownish feathers with a white patterned undertone camouflage them among the trees in which they live. Nocturnal hunters with raptorial claws and sharp beaks, they sleep during the day.
"They're very common owls but they're so tiny and they hunt at night that you rarely see them," said Woods.
Conklin and his family did during the holiday weekend in May they spend at a cottage in the Quaker Neck area of Chestertown, along the Chester River. A relative taking a walk along a path came across one of the baby owls. He returned to the cottage without the bird.
"We went back and looked up where the bird had fallen from a hole in a tree. We decided to back off and see if the mother bird came, but she didn't," recounted Conklin, who at that point called Woods.
From Conklin's description, Woods thought it might be a screech owl and gave emergency survival instructions. "We created a nest environment in a cardboard box, with towels and heated water bottles for warmth," Conklin recalls. "We fed it hamburger meat, and it survived through the night."
He credits relative Jessica Conklin with skillfully feeding the baby bird. "She tapped the beak to get it to open its mouth. It was such a tiny thing. She put in a dab of hamburger. We fed it three times during the 24 hours we had it," says Conklin whose son, Chuck Conklin, drove the bird to the center the next day, Monday.
But the adventure wasn't over. On Tuesday, Conklin packed up, left the cottage and was driving on the path when, to his surprise, he spotted the second baby owl on the ground.
"It was in the same spot where the first baby owl was found," said Conklin, who wrapped it in a towel, placed it in the passenger seat next to him and took it to the center.
Phoenix Wildlife Center is one of 15 such centers around the state. Besides its rescue operation, it offers educational events in surrounding counties. Woods constantly gets calls from around the state about injured animals, and she's happy to answer questions.
"Half of what I do is talking people through" an animal emergency, she says. "People call about a bird that slams into a window, or a squirrel that falls out of a tree. If we get the animal within four hours [of injury], the chance of survival is better than if left overnight."
Because of Conklin's quick action, the baby owls arrived at the center in "great shape," says Woods. "He kept them warm and fed."
Screech owls nest in the cavities of trees. Woods speculates that a predator got into the nest and pulled one of the baby birds out, then came back the next day for another baby. "They came out of the same nest because they were found in the same place," she says.
The parent owls can't get the babies back into the nest. "They can only feed them on the ground and they were way too little to survive that," Woods continues, although she figures there were probably another two baby owls left in the nest.
During their stay at the center, the owls were fed a specific diet. When they were old enough, they were taken outside in special cages and encouraged to hunt on their own. But the center staff was careful not to give them names, speak to them or handle them once they could eat on their own.
"We don't interact with them. We don't want them to get used to humans," says Woods, a necessary technique if the animal is to survive on its own.
The owls are being released in Gunpowder Valley State Park. Unlike some species, Woods doesn't think they will return to Chestertown. "They'll stick around here," she says. "Screech owls do have a local presence."