One fine day last April, Gayle Christison was riding her horse on a trail through a quiet stand of woods when she came upon what looked like a ball of feathers with eyes sitting on the ground.
The little creature turned out to be a very young Great Horned Owl. Maybe it had tried to fly too early, maybe it had just become a little too adventurous and had somehow fallen out of its nest. Whatever the case, it wasn’t going back up on its own.
Christison called her daughter, Britt Jennings, who arrived on the scene with her partner, Peter Wolfram. All agreed the young raptor, which they called the little owlet, would die if they didn’t at least try to help it.
Jennings contacted friend and local wildlife rescuer Margaret Buckelew.
“The parent birds had been seen nearby, so it was decided the best thing to do was to try to re-nest the little owlet,” Jennings said. “The problem was, the original nest was very high up – way up a tall pine tree -- so it was impossible for us to put the little owlet back in the nest.”
After further discussion, they decided on a “plan B.”
“Peter (Wolfram) made a makeshift nest out of a laundry basket which we set up in the tree,” Jennings said.
They placed the little owlet into the new nest, set up a wildlife camera to monitor the situation, and proceeded to wait and see what happened, she said.
At first it worked. The parents found their lost chick and for the next couple of weeks camera footage showed the adult owls diligently feeding their baby all kinds of tasty (to an owl) treats, including snakes, squirrels, rodents and rabbits.
But suddenly, the parent owls stopped caring for their baby. Jennings and Wolfram became alarmed when the parent birds did not show up at the nest for two days.
They went to investigate and soon learned the meaning behind the phrase, “a murder of crows”, which is the phrase used to describe a large group of crows, Jennings said.
“Crows – hundreds of them -- had moved into the area and had driven the parent owls away from the nest,” Jennings said. “We learned that crows will do that – they find a nest and harass and chase the adult birds away so the young die from neglect.”
The crows will often then feed on the dead owlets, she said.
The small group of rescuers, however, was not willing to let that to happen, Jennings said.
Buckelew contacted Mac Mercedes, a licensed raptor rehabber with PAWS Animal Wildlife Sanctuary in Laurens, South Carolina. Under Mercedes’ expert and careful instruction, the group transported the little owlet to PAWS for continued care with the hope that, if all went well, he could be released back into the wild once he was ready.
At PAWS, the young bird was given supportive fluid therapy and hand fed until his condition stabilized, Jennings said.
“PAWS continued to care for him, along with two other “surrogate sibling” Great Horned Owlets that came under their care for similar reasons,” Jennings said. “The owlets were then introduced to a pair of educational Great Horned Owl adults that live at PAWS due to past injuries that prohibit them from being released back into the wild.”
The young birds grew rapidly, flourishing under the care of their adoptive parents, learning important life skills such as hunting and flying. Finally, the three juveniles were ready for release, Jennings said.
She and Wolfram visited PAWS and brought all three owlets back to the farm where the first owlet was hatched. Together, with the help of Pine Tree Hill Wildlife, the three owls were released September 25. The release went well and the little owlets -- who are not so little anymore with each weighing over 5 pounds -- took to the sky, Jennings said.
It was a successful rehabilitation and an amazing and happy ending to their time under human care and a hopeful beginning to their life as free wild Great Horned Owls, Jennings said.
“A very special thank you is in order for all who helped make this story a success,” she said. “Pine Tree Hill Wildlife is a non-profit wildlife rehab right here in Camden and is instrumental in helping a tremendous amount of local wildlife including squirrels, opossums, and turtles. PAWS Animal Wildlife Sanctuary is a non-profit wildlife rehab facility and is responsible for the care of more than 150 injured or displaced wild animals -- including many raptors and fawns. Without these two organizations, this rescue and rehabilitation would not have been possible.”
For more information or to dontate to these organizations, go to the Facebook pages. You can also follow the little owlet’s story, including videos from the wildlife cameras and photos on The Little Owlet Facebook page.
“If you find wildlife in need of help it is always best to contact a permitted wildlife rehabber,” Jennings added. “In Kershaw County you can call Margaret Buckelew at Pine Tree Hill Wildlife at 803-427-1350.”