By Ben Rodgers
DE PERE – Three De Pere firefighters can add “owl handler” to their resumes after an unusual call April 1.
After nesting in an old red-tailed hawk nest, an eight-week-old juvenile great horned owl plunged roughly three stories to the street in a residential neighborhood when the firefighters were dispatched to help.
Lt. Ron Cody, a firefighter/paramedic with the De Pere Fire Department, was on scene.
“It was a very interesting and I think a very curious factor for us, because to see an owl up close is something that never happens, and it was surprising how large a baby owl is,” Cody said.
Animal control made the call to the firefighters after it was able to move the fallen owlette in a box, but still needed help getting it into a makeshift nest lower in the tree.
“I bragged to a lot of people that we got to put a baby owl back up in a tree, back into its nest, and the mom was just a couple of trees over watching us,” Cody said.
He said the owlette was “fluffy and cute,” while he described momma owl as “scary looking.”
“It really is very refreshing, it felt very good,” Cody said. “It was kind of a comforting factor seeing the mom watch over us making sure we were handling and taking care of her baby appropriately, that did feel good on that level.”
Momma owl had reason to be cautious, because this was the second time an owl fell out of that particular nest.
The first time an owlette required a trip to Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary for minor injuries, said Lori Bankson, sanctuary curator of animals.
“This happened a few hours before we were going to put the first one back in the nest, and we got a call from a neighbor that said the second one jumped out,” Bankson said. “So we had to do this according to protocols.”
She said protocols dictate after a second owl jumps from a nest, the birds must be taken care of and raised by two surrogate parents the sanctuary has for cases like this, because the nest is unsafe or the birds are having trouble adjusting.
“We do everything we can to get them back in the nest, but we have to listen to wildlife,” Bankson said. “If they jump out more than once, we don’t want them to get injured. There’s something they’re not getting, whether they have a nutrition problem, a predator problem, we want to do what gives them the best chance. In this case, it was with our surrogates.”
She said both baby owls are doing great and will be released back into the wild in July or August.
Bankson said the wildlife sanctuary has one male and one female great horned owl, who are unable to be released into the wild, so they are used to raising young and do it every year.
In some cases this is because great horned owls have what people may consider questionable nesting habits.
Great horned owls are notorious for using other birds’ nests, because they do not build their own.
This has advantages, because chicks hatch in February and get an early start on hunting other baby animals on their own.
As a result, established neighborhoods in the area are prime nesting spots for great horned owls.
“Of all the owls, they’re probably the most common to find in town, but you can also find them in the middle of the woods away from people,” said Erin Giese, UW-Green Bay senior research specialist at Cofrin Center for Biodiversity and chapter president of the Northeast Wisconsin Audubon Society.
Giese said in the case of the De Pere owls, it isn’t as simple as the mother owl picking up the baby and dropping it back off at the nest.
“That seems really dangerous, because their talons are so sharp,” she said. “I’ve handled great horns before with thick, leather, outdoorsy gloves, and it still felt like my hand was going to break. Granted, that was an angry owl, not a parent tending to their young. They can control the strength they grab with, but I think that’s too dangerous.”
Because the mother owl is still around looking for her young, the location of this incident is not being reported.
The Wisconsin Society of Ornithology has a code of ethics which states people should not act in ways to endanger the welfare of birds, particularly owls.
Giese said an influx of people to this neighborhood could disrupt the mother owl’s nesting habits, even without the owlettes present.
“If you’re close enough to it that the adult bird won’t go back to the nest, then you’re too close,” she said.