Backyard Owl Rescue

Text and photographs by Maymie Higgins

Sundays are usually the only day I can afford the indulgence of sleeping until awaking naturally, instead of to the incessant beeping of a rude and shrill alarm clock. However, on a recent Sunday I was abruptly roused from a deep sleep at 8 A.M. by the sound of the doorbell ringing, which was quickly followed by the frantic barking of all four of my dogs. I am not a morning person. I have never been a morning person. I will never be a morning person. Thankfully, my husband is. Although he was also asleep when the doorbell rang, he managed to run interference while I remained snug under the covers. But it was not to last.

My husband answered the door and a conversation began. Though I could not make out the words, I did recognize the voice of my neighbor. Both of their voices faded and I thought, “Paul probably just needs Darren’s help with something.” I pulled the covers in closer and closed my eyes with impunity. But only a moment later I heard my husband coming down the hall. As he entered our bedroom, he began to explain how I was needed next door because an owl is caught in Paul’s badminton net. Animals are probably the only exception to my non-morning person policy. I was on the mission within two minutes.

It was not surprising the species entwined in the net was a Barred Owl. Almost nightly we hear the classic vocalization of these large, stocky owls with round heads, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you”? After explaining that the badminton net could not be saved and that oven mitts are insufficient protection from raptor talons, I threw a towel over the owl. The fellows pulled the net post up and we lowered everything to the ground. The net was then cut on both sides of the owl and I placed him, still bundled in the towel, into a pet carrier. I had the thought that I may be able to cut the netting away and that his or her wings appeared to be without injury but I wanted to make sure.

So off we went to the Valerie H. Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at the North Carolina Zoological Park. The owl spent a week in the center, where the netting was cut away and he or she was thoroughly examined by a veterinarian twice, who then cleared the owl for discharge the following Saturday. Ideally, the next part of the journey for the owl would be a release at the same spot in which it was rescued, with no difficulties. There were difficulties.

The owl had been secured for pick up in a cardboard box, which we were to simply cut away tape at the opening, open the box and the owl pop right out. But on the journey home, and in spite of our complete silence for the 50 minute ride, the owl was very active. With all the rustling within the box, the scene in the movie Tommy Boy where the deer comes back to life came to mind. We kept looking back to see if the owl had escaped his box, half way expecting it to be perched on the backseat of my SUV, clicking its beak at us.

Fortunately, the owl did not escape from the box but it had somehow gotten the end of one of its primary flight feathers stuck in duct tape on the inside of the box. Here is where it is important to remind readers that wild animals are easily stressed by the sight, sound, smell and touch of humans. If you are attempting rescue of a wild animal, be quiet and avoid looking directly at their face as much as possible. Having an owl taped to the inside of a cardboard box made both of those tasks impossible. There was profanity. There was staring. I had to figure out what to do.

Fortunately, my college ornithology class and comparatively limited experience with birds served me well…..and, more importantly, served owl well. I sliced away the very tip of the feather from the tape and then gently ejected the bird from the box. Not surprisingly, the owl just sat there for about five minutes, probably due to the stress of all this hullabaloo. Heck, I wanted to just plop down a minute too! But then the most glorious thing happened. Owl flew into our neighbor’s Magnolia tree, hopped up several branches, looking down on us with the proper level of disdain. He then flew over to our pine trees before taking a long, beautiful flight up the street.


Many birds moult, which means drop old feathers and grow new ones in their place. This involved only the very tip of only one feather and therefore did not impair flight at all. Eventually, the entire feather will be replaced and it will be as if this did not happen.

My understanding is that those few days owl was in the wildlife rehab center were likely not enough time for his or her mate to have abandoned their union. Since the release, I have heard again “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” which now sounds more like a happy couple than just a couple of birds to me.

If you would like to know more about Barred Owls, check out the information at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Also, check out the Valerie H. Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center where native North Carolina wildlife is given the best chance of returning to the wild.

Moments before taking flight.

4 thoughts on “Backyard Owl Rescue

  1. Pingback: Owl Be Home for Christmas | julianaolivia

    • Thank you! It was as stressful for me as the owl, I believe. Two neighbors were observing and I had allowed my husband to open the box for release, not realizing he was so afraid that he would choose to use a stick from afar to pry the lid open, which is not a swift method even when a wing is not taped to the box. It is imperative to release wild animals quickly and quietly so I was anxious the whole time, wanting to get it right.

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