April 1, 2008
Villagers successfully rescue a baby owl in Salvo


There’s a proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Evidently, it also takes a village to save a baby owl.

Chris Moro, a local real estate agent, was exploring her lot in Salvo on Monday, March 24, when she came across the unexpected.

“I heard this clucking noise, and I saw this ball of white fur,” she says.  At first she thought it might be a woodpecker or even an opossum.  “Then I saw these two huge eyes, and I knew it was an owl.”

Moro knew that the baby owl, called an owlet, would not survive on the ground with predators such as cats and raccoons lurking in the woods.  But she needed some support.

“I called my friends Eric [Anglin] and Leslie [Robinson] for help,” Moro explains.

Anglin and Robinson went searching for a box for the owlet when they came upon Michael Halminski, a local wildlife photographer, and solicited his help.

He returned to the site and immediately surmised the situation. 

“It was obviously a great horned owl because it was large for a baby bird,” he says.  Despite its sharp talons and beak, the young bird was rather docile.

The group examined the area around the owlet and noticed spore and castings in the area.  They also observed an adult owl circling overhead.  Evidently, the owlet was being fed and cared for, despite living on the ground for probably two to three days.

Finally, they spotted the nest in a nearby pine tree.

“I learned later that great horned owls use nests that other birds build,” explains Halminski.  “It looked like a grackle nest,” so it was going to be too small for the owlet.

The owlet did not appear injured, and it was being fed.  At that point, Halminski decided to get some guidance on how to help the baby survive.  He called Lou Browning, a North Carolina wildlife rehabilitator with a facility in Frisco.

Browning was in Manteo that Monday, volunteering at the North Carolina Aquarium.  Via cell phone, he instructed Halminski that the best recourse was to get the owlet back into its nest.

Halminski began calling friends to find a ladder tall enough to reach the nest.  He was in contact with Browning, who decided to head back a little early to directly lend a hand.

“Putting it back up there didn’t seem viable,” Halminski related.

With extension ladders still not tall enough, Halminski called Mike Daugherty, chief of the Chicamacomico Banks Volunteer Fire Department. 

Fortunately, Daugherty was able to break from his work as a cabinet maker, and the fire department was quiet.  While the fire department does not regularly assist with such tasks, he agreed to meet the group with the ladder truck when Browning arrived.

Browning conducted a quick physical examination on the owlet.  His assessment was that the baby was only about a month old.  “He was still down and a few pin feathers and would not be able to survive living on the ground,” he says.

To confirm their plan as the best course of action, Browning then called his wildlife rehabilitation mentor, Elizabeth Hanrahan (formerly of Ocracoke), for advice.

“She suggested that we re-nest it,” explains Browning.  “It is always better for the parents to raise the owlet since they can teach it to be wild, like hunting.”  Also, the nearest raptor rehabilitation center is in Charlotte, not quite feasible for an owlet rescue on Hatteras.

Fortunately for the owlet, local fire heroes Daugherty and deputy chief Chet Bailey were on the scene.  Both Browning and Halminski credit Daugherty for the successful re-nesting.

“It was the truck, not me,” says Daugherty modestly.  “The ladder on the truck is self-supporting, which makes it ideal in these situations.  Also, it was particularly good since it was windy that day.  It was much safer [than a standard ladder].”

With more than 20 years as a member of the Frisco Volunteer Fire Department, Browning is trained to use the equipment on the ladder truck.  Once geared up, he climbed to check out the nest.
“When I got up there and looked, I found the nest was dilapidated,” says Browning. It was also simply too small for a growing owlet. 

Browning asked the group to think of creative solutions for an owl nest.

“I said, ‘I have the perfect thing,’” recalls Halminski.  He dashed home to pick up an old-style crab bushel basket and some clothes line.  It definitely fit the bill.

Browning placed the existing nest into the bushel basket and lashed it to the tree.  He then carefully carried the owlet up the ladder and placed him in the new nest.

“Then I asked everyone to clear out and give them some space,” he says.  This would encourage the parents to return to the nest and the owlet.

All through Monday, the wind continued to gust.

“That night it was blowing a gale,” recalls Halminski.  “I went to bed thinking about that bird.”

Moro went by the next day.  “I checked on him, and he seems to be doing fine.” 

Halminski also went to observe the family early on Wednesday morning, before the sunrise.  “I started peering with binoculars and I saw a big head and big eyes peering right at me.  I was elated.  It was great because I didn’t want him [the owlet] to waste away and starve.”

Halminski related the news to Browning, who confirmed that it was an adult observed in the nest.  The re-nesting appears to be a success, which is critical since owlets are with their parents for many months, even after learning to fly. 

“Re-nesting is not common,” explains Browning. “Birds are not found in time and nests are usually a very difficult place to get to.”  After re-nesting, it is important for humans to keep their distance.

Fortunately for the local owlet, the local humans helped him return home and properly reunite with his parents.  They were happy to assist.

“It’s something that you don’t get to do every day,” relates fire chief Daugherty.

“It took up most of my day, but it’s what I have a passion for,” says Halminski.  “It was one of the most uplifting things I’ve done in a while.”

(Editor's Note: Lou Browning is still rescuing wildlife on Hatteras Island as a licensed rehabilitator.  You can find out more about his non-profit Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation -- and perhaps make a donation to his work --at www.hiwr.us  or on Facebook. Michael Halminski is still photographing island wildlife -- and Hatteras Island.  See his photos at photoblog.michaelhalminski.com/.)

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