March 2, 2015

Till Death Do Us Part

By Eric D'Aleo

February 14, 2015

Snow was falling as I walked down the path behind my neighbor Mary, struggling to keep my footing through the white blanket on the ground. The quiet enveloped me as we moved slowly toward the copse of pines.

“Down there,” my neighbor said quietly as she pointed ahead and at ground level. “Can you see it?”

I nodded my head and started to head into the field.

“Don’t you want to move this way and come down through the pines?” she asked.

“No, I think I’d like to take photographs from the field facing the pine trees in case it flies off,” I replied and continued walking.

I trudged through the snow trying to maintain my distance and not spook the bird. Then I could see it, a buff colored ghost with dark markings covering its body. It was a barred owl with perfect camouflage for hiding against a tree trunk, but starkly evident in the brush below, only inches above the snow. I crept forward to take a photo and could see the crow that the owl had killed hanging below it, yet something seemed wrong. I continued to move closer, waiting for the owl to flush; only it didn’t.

“I think the bird is trapped,” Mary said.

I was only a few feet away and could see the bird’s head rolling back as if it was looking up at the trees but it didn’t move. I gently prodded the owl with the base of my monopod and it faintly stirred. Two branches from the sapling it perched on seemed to stick up through its feathered chest as if it had been impaled. But how could that happen? The branches were long and flexible and there was no blood on them. The owl appeared to be holding on to its prize, the crow, for all it was worth or so it seemed. Suddenly I realized this was not a photography mission, it was a rescue mission.

I told Mary that the bird looked to be in rough shape but it was still alive. I explained we could try and put it in a crate so I could take it the Science Center to see if it could recover, or we could let nature take its course, but I didn’t think the bird would survive through the afternoon.

She said that she had a carry kennel that I could use to transport the bird and had clippers as well as heavy gloves so I could extricate the owl from the brush. As Mary walked back to get the materials we needed, I propped my camera among the branches of nearby shrubs to prevent it from lying in the snow.

I looked at the owl more closely as I waited and began to wonder what I was thinking. I had the flu and was spending this day resting when I received Mary’s phone call shortly after lunch. When I heard that there was an owl with a crow it had killed in the brush I completely disregarded being sick, grabbed my camera, put on my boots, and drove the quarter mile down the road. Wildlife waits for no one. This was a lesson I had learned many times before.

Upon closer inspection I noticed the owl wasn’t actually holding the dead bird, it was the other way around. The crow, in death had clasped its left foot around the owl’s right leg and was locked in place, pulling on the owl like an albatross. Even if the owl was healthy and strong, it would be a herculean feat to fly out of the thick brush with the crow attached. There also was blood around the owl’s face and some feathers on its chest, which were frozen with snow around a branch locking the bird to the young tree. Glancing around I could see fading marks of feathers, bodies, and feet in the snow that were slowly being covered by the new snowfall.

Mary arrived with the kennel, clippers, and gloves a few minutes later. I removed the branches so we could get closer to the owl. The first snip was to the crow’s leg. The body dropped to the snow without a sound while its foot held onto the owl’s leg like some avian anklet. The second snip removed a branch that rested against the bird’s chest. I could see that the other branch was indeed somehow frozen in place. Quietly, I leaned forward and placed the clippers above the legs of the owl to try and cut the branch near the chest. With a final clip the owl’s body leaned back and its wings spread out as in a reflex to falling through air. However, its talons remained firmly grasped to the branch upon which it had been perched. Holding the legs between the gloved fingers of one hand, I pried the talons loose with the other. During this time the owl seemed to become more aware of me and its surroundings, looking at my face while I worked. Once the bird was in my hands I noticed how light it felt, like a wisp of smoke, possibly emaciated from the harsh winter and heavy snowfall, which favored owls’ rodent prey, that were able to tunnel safely underneath the thick snow.

I placed the bird in the kennel and gathered up my camera as Mary and I walked back toward her house.

“It seems to be more aware and sitting upright,” she noted as I loaded the kennel into my car.

“I’ll let you know what happens,“ I said as I shut the door. “Thanks for your help.”

I drove along the back roads to the Science Center noting its condition along the way. I dropped the bird off with Lauren Moulis, a member of our animal care staff and filled out the appropriate paperwork, promptly leaving as I started feeling like I had overexerted myself. Before I left, I asked Lauren to email me with the preliminary findings on the status of the owl and to keep me updated if anything significant should happen. I spent the next several days in bed battling the flu bug, occasionally wondering how the owl was doing. On Sunday evening, I briefly checked my email to see if there was an update. Lauren’s comment was that it was sitting up and more alert, clicking its beak at her when she opened the crate to feed it. The blood on its feathers turned out to be that of the crow and the branches were only frozen to the feathers. Her biggest concern was how long the circulation was restricted to the owl’s right foot from the crow’s “death grip.” She had given it some medication for the pain, but mainly had it resting and eating. I went back to bed to continue my recovery knowing that the barred owl was doing the same.

Wednesday, February 18 was the first opportunity I had to see the bird when I returned to work. I learned from Nancy Kitchen, our Animal Care Manager, that the barred owl had a clean bill of health and was fit to be released back into the wild. I was very pleased and excited that it had recovered so well, but was also somewhat stressed as I tried to coordinate help in returning the owl to the area it had been found. Another winter snowstorm was approaching Wednesday evening and I wanted to give the bird the most time to reorient itself to its territory.

I arrived home at 2:20 pm with the barred owl and contacted my wife and neighbor who would help me with the release. Ten minutes later the bird was in place along the edge of a large wooded area near the Baker River. The afternoon was bright and clear, a distinct contrast to the snowy, gray day when the owl had been found. We opened the crate door. Initially the bird did not come out. However, once it did, the barred owl flew directly up to a large, low branch of a red maple. It perched there, sitting quietly, seeming to take in the familiar surroundings for a minute. As it sat there the owl was greeted by a raucous cacophony of calls from a flock of crows in the distance. Surely, these birds were associated with the deceased crow that we had found on Saturday. Their calls became louder and more incessant as they approached. Not wanting to draw any attention to itself the barred owl hesitated only a moment before it turned toward the woods, spread its wings, and silently glided between the trunks of the trees to settle on a cherry tree tucked under the cover of pines and hemlocks. I walked around to where I could get a clearer view and watched the three crows land in the nearby trees scolding the owl. The barred owl seemed to melt into the tree using its camouflage to seemingly disappear. It appeared that this bird had made a vow to avoid the old “black” ball and chain.


Barry said...

Great story. Nature is a fantastic relm, if we take the time to be part of it. I appreciate reading your adventure at the beginning of this beautiful day.Thanks ... Barry

Liz said...

Amazing. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story, Eric.