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Column | Les Winkeler: The vicarious lives of owls

Column | Les Winkeler: The vicarious lives of owls

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It was a surprisingly exhilarating moment.

Bev Shofstall carried two small pet carriers from her van and placed them on a low-boy trailer at Sahara Woods Fish and Wildlife Area, located near Harrisburg, Tuesday morning. Inside each pet carrier was an angry, or perhaps impatient, barn owl. Barn owl emotions are difficult to read.

The barn owls likely weren’t aware of it, but this was a homecoming.

They had been hatched just a few yards from the spot late this spring. Unfortunately, their mother had been killed by a predator, and if not for decisive action by the Sahara Woods staff, the owls, and their three siblings, would have starved to death.

After an employee of Sahara Woods found the remains of a barn owl near the nest site, staff began monitoring the nest. When the mother didn’t return for a day, staff members removed the five owlets and transported them to Free Again Wildlife Rehabilitation.

The owls were nursed back to health and by Tuesday were deemed mature enough to survive on their own.

Yet, when Shofstall opened the doors to the cages, there was a slight delay. The owls didn’t bolt to freedom immediately.

One can only imagine the owls’ thought processes. They had never seen open skies before. Their entire life experience consisted of confinement — whether the nest box of their earliest days or the enclosure at Free Again.

Actually, the delay was probably less than five seconds before the first owl bolted from the cage. And, an instant later, the second owl emerged.

It took a couple wing beats before the owls gained elevation, but I experienced a vicarious feeling of hopefulness, joy and sheer happiness with each inch of altitude the owls gained. To see these magnificent creatures released into the wild …

One of the owls flew just a short distance before lighting high in a nearby tree. The owl sat quietly, staring at the small crowd assembled below. Again, it’s difficult to read bird behavior, but it’s likely he or she was thinking, “Where am I and what just happened?”

The owl finally flew off and we stared at the sky for a few moments after it disappeared. Then, we stared a little longer, contemplating the wonder of it all.

Barn owls are a state endangered species. They are secretive. Seeing a barn owl is an event to be savored. It was a privilege to witness the release.

The details of the owls’ life story made their release even more special.

Had the Sahara Woods staff been less vigilant, the birds probably would have been lost. Shofstall said the two smallest owls in the clutch were near starvation. The stronger of the owls probably would have succumbed to starvation within 24-48 hours.

And, the expertise and dedication of Shofstall to nurse the birds back to health … it all lent a miraculous feel to the morning’s activities.

It would be nice to say this story has a happy ending. But, no one has any idea what will become of the owls. Normal mortality rates would suggest that one of the five will survive to adulthood. It’s a grim prognosis, but it’s a reality of nature.

But, for this moment, the five birds have been given the opportunity to survive. It’s doubtful I’ll ever see any of the five again, but in my mind, they’ll always be present.

LES WINKELER is the outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, or call 618-351-5088 / On Twitter @LesWinkeler.


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