Late Wednesday morning, my mother and I were driving to a funeral service and I was absent-mindedly gazing out the window as the fields turned to neighborhoods, town buildings, and then back to fields again. Snow had recently melted away to reveal muddy lawns and trash strewn ditches. It was in one of these ditches that I spied something more than your usual McDonald’s bag or beer can.
This something was large and brown and, as we passed by I realized, feathered. I knew at once that it was an owl, and considered the oddity of an owl in broad daylight, sitting in a roadside ditch. However, I decided that this occurrence, though somewhat odd, was not overtly strange. After all, the creature might have had a late hunt, or perhaps it was scavenging road kill—do owls scavenge? I asked myself. I had seen many owls during the daylight hours, though mostly perched on fence posts or tree, and I said nothing of the matter, figuring the bird would be long gone by the time we were going back that direction in the afternoon.
I was wrong.
Later that day we passed the same spot and, wonder of wonders, the owl was still sitting in the ditch. Struck by this, I sat without speaking in my seat for perhaps another block before starting, in an off-hand manner, to my mother something like this: ‘By the way, there’s what appears to be an owl sitting in the ditch back there. It’s been there all day.’
Curiosity aroused, my mother turned the car onto a side street and looped around to where I said the bird was. Spying it, she was as bewildered as I was, but both of us knew that something was wrong.
We half figured that the creature was already dead, as it had not seemed to have moved an inch all day. But most dead animals, on the other hand, don’t sit fully upright on the sloping bank of a muddy waterway.
My next thought was that perhaps this one was a remarkably well-formed dummy, the sort set upon barn roofs and lamp posts and warehouses to frighten mice and crows and whatever other pests the owner of the decoy was trying to be rid of. The problem with this came when we pulled into the empty driveway of the house beyond that section of ditch and watched the creature’s feathers rippling in the breeze. So it wasn’t constructed of wood or rubber or plastic, or any other synthetic material of the sort.
My last thought, was that somehow perhaps someone in the strange country we live in had an owl, for some unknown reason, taxidermied and this was a stuffed owl sitting there so complacently. As outrageous as that might sound, it was actually not much of a stretch for the imagination. And it would explain why a seemingly ‘real’ owl, if not necessarily ‘live’ was able to sit upright on the incline of the little wayside gulley. I thought perhaps the stuffed thing had been lost from a person’s vehicle while driving along.
In any case, the ditch happened to be across from the local Extension Center, where they have a goodly amount of information on agricultural issues and certainly should have the number of a conservation agent we could call. We parked and walked in, and while my mother was on the phone leaving a message for the agent, one of the ladies in the office and I walked out across the office lawn, the road, and down into the ditch.
The bird, dead or alive, was facing us. One eye was halfway open and the other peacefully shut. At the time, I forgot that owls can move their eyes somewhat independently, and assumed that this unnatural and cockeyed expression meant it was, indeed, quite dead. It was large and beautiful up close, and just as we stepped a few feet closer—now only about six feet away—a car slowed down on the road to see what we were gawking at. With the added activity around it, the owl slowly spun its head to face the road.
I couldn’t have been more shocked if it had leaped into the air. It was alive.
We returned to the office and my mother left another message for the agent, saying the animal was, for the moment, living. My brother drove by later and took this photograph of the poor thing in the ditch: (At this point in time, we didn’t know what we were going to do about the matter.)
As night came on and we had not heard back from the conservation agent, I felt mixed sensations of pity and guilt. I doubted that, left to its own devices, it would stand any chance of surviving the night. We made one last call to a family member of a friend who had once worked at a wild bird sanctuary and knew something about handling the creatures. Unfortunately, this person lived some hours away. But fortunately, she gave us some advice on what to do and I managed to find some similar information online.
So before it grew completely dark, we returned to the little gulley and my brother and I—armed with a cardboard box punched with air holes and a blanket—approached the creature we now knew to be a barred owl, like these:
The owl valiantly wriggled in protest, but there was little fight left in its cold bones. We deposited the creature into the box, used duct tape to seal it, and then tucked it in a back classroom of our church building until that evenings prayer service was over and we could take the owl home. Told not to try giving it food or water, we set it in a bedroom beside a heater…
…and waited to see what the morning would bring.
To our great surprise and wonderful delight, our feathered guest was still alive come morning and we renewed our attempts to find some professional care for him (or her, but I tire of referring to the owl as ‘it’). Especially since it is illegal to keep an owl as a pet, and we had no intentions of doing so.
After another sally of phone calls and phone tag and going in general telegraphic circles, we reached the conservation agent, who told us to call a local nature center, who told us to call a local zoo. At long last, the zoo said they could take the poor thing off our hands and get it the help it needed. Having done our best to keep the creature warm and as stress-free as possible, we had avoided handling it or even looking at it except for when transferring it to a larger, clean, and better equipped box—which is when this second photo was taken:
(And we had been given the go-ahead to provide it with water.) I wanted the picture, which was perhaps a bit selfish, but I did instruct my brother—who had the camera—to be sure the flash was turned off, which is why this picture is dark and grainy—also caused by my retouching in order to lighten it and make the owl considerably more visible.
We are worried for his health, for though he does not appear to have any broken limbs, in the picture of him in the ditch, his beak appears bloodied, and I thought I glimpsed the same thing when we gently lifted the old, small, and soiled box off of the animal after tucking it inside the bigger box. I’m hoping that perhaps this is a mild beak injury or something superficial, and not a sign that he has internal injuries
This morning he was transported to the local zoo where he can receive the care he needs. (Or she.)
Oh, yes...and while this is totally unofficial and I feel I must quote Monsters Inc., "Once you name it, you start getting attached to it!" We decided to refer to our former guest as Bo.