HARRISBURG — Two juvenile barn owls stared at the open skies for a couple seconds after Bev Shofstall, of Free Again Wildlife Rehabilitation, released the door to their cages.
Then, without any prompting, they bolted to freedom, taking shelter in a nearby grove of trees.
The owls lit in the treetops, blinking incessantly, as the raucous cries of unseen crows serenaded them. The release, which occurred at Sahara Woods State Fish and Wildlife Area, completed a circle in the brief life of five barn owls.
They were hatched just a few yards away, in a maintenance shed at the state site sometime in May. However, the owlets had to be rescued when their mother, known as Ruby to Sahara Woods employees, was killed by a predator.
“Jim Burroughs, one of my employees, said he had found a wing of what appeared to be a barn owl and some feathers,” said Eric McClusky, site superintendent at Sahara Woods. “We monitored for about 23 hours. She never came back to the nest.
“That was highly uncharacteristic of her. She was gone maybe an hour, two at the most. That’s when we had to do something. We contacted our heritage biologist. She suggested Bev (Shofstall). We took them out of the nest, which was quite the undertaking. She took them from there.”
Two of the five owlets arrived at Free Again Rehabilitation in critical condition.
“Owls lay an egg, and two days later, lay another egg,” Shofstall said. “With five of them, we had a 10-day age span between the biggest and the youngest. The two youngest were probably only four or five days old. They were in bad shape. They needed food pretty quick. It was touch and go on those.
“The other ones were bigger and stronger. They probably could have gone another 24 to 48 hours. The littlest one for sure, we worried about. They got extra TLC. The bigger ones were already eating pieces of mice. The little ones we tube fed them for the first couple meals to get food in them.”
The owlets were hand fed for several days. However, Shofstall said it wasn’t long before the older birds were already picking dead mice off the floor. Once they were healthy enough, live mice were added to their diet. At that point, the owl’s instinct took over.
“Barn owls are hunting fools,” Shofstall said. “You really don’t have to teach them to hunt. They’ll take to it. I don’t really worry about them. If I see them hit a mouse once, I know they’re probably going to do it.”
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The barn owls, which are essentially full-grown, could probably have been released a month ago. The release day was delayed several weeks just to keep the birds under observation.
“They probably could have gone, probably three or four weeks ago,” Shofstall said. “Then it becomes of matter of how well they are hunting. When you’ve got five of them, even if you have a trail cam in (the cage) you’re not sure who is getting fed. Is one getting all of them?
“We held them to make sure during that month they got nothing but live (food). We didn’t feed any dead in that time span. We were just checking their weights. As long as their weight stayed up in that time span we knew everyone was hunting.”
All five of the birds flew away strongly after their release. Barn owls need grasslands to hunt. Sahara Woods is part grassland and part wooded area. The five owls could stay on the state property and find their own territories nearby.
Their survival? That’s nature’s call.
“Mortality rate is the highest when they are just coming out of the nest, when they’re still young juveniles and not keen on the ways of the world,” Shofstall said. “That’s when their highest mortality is.
“They are one of the smallest owls, so great horned owls prey on them. If they are caught on the ground, four-legged predators will prey on them. It’s a crapshoot. We always figure with any of them, we’ve done our jobs because, God knows, that’s probably the reality out there.”
In the meantime, a small gathering of people uttered oohs and ahs, watching the owls’ first moments of freedom.
“It really is gratifying,” McClusky said. “It was something we took a real interest in. We were alerted they were in there by birders who told us, ‘We think we see a face in that box.’ We got to nosing around up there. It’s definitely gratifying.
“That’s kind of what we are here to do. I hope they make it. If one or two make it, I think we’ve done our job.”