A Great Horned Owl Rescue...and When to Not Rescue Wildlife
Updated: Apr 27
One cold day at Lake Chelan State Park, our family saw something sitting in the sandy volleyball court. Looking a lot like a large cat from afar, we went to investigate. As we got close, the animal stood and repositioned itself. Then we knew it was NOT a cat. The pointy rear-end was unmistakably a bird...a Great Horned Owl to be exact.
It’s Not Typical To See an Owl Sitting on the Ground- Especially During the Day
Now, we are not new to the great outdoors, so we knew we should respect the wildlife. We stayed fairly far back to watch the owl and take some pictures. Eventually the owl flew, although it spent the rest of that day in low branches. We checked on it occasionally throughout the day, but didn’t think too much of its presence. We know there’s a nest across the highway from us, although it was strange that it was sticking around the campground for so long.
Wait...The Owl Is Back? Sitting on the Ground Again?
The following day, I was out for a walk near the lake and rounded a corner to find the unexpected. It was the Great Horned Owl, again sitting on the ground. This time I was much closer to the owl (accidentally), and it didn't fly away. It’s not every day (usually) that we get to see such a majestic bird, so I went to get the kids. We returned and found the owl had not moved.
One child noticed one of the Owl's eyes did not look right, so we slowly moved closer to get a better look. The owl watched us approach, but did not move and even closed its good eye occasionally as we walked near. This made us fairly certain this owl was not feeling well.
Now, we know we should leave wildlife alone and give it space, but considering this was the second day the owl had been acting strange we were concerned. I also have some experience with wildlife. I knew I wouldn't get a response from a Fish and Wildlife officer or Animal Control without a photo or a better understanding of what’s going on. (This is your disclaimer, don’t do this at home)
We got within 6 feet of the owl and it still didn’t stir. It barely looked at us. Very strange owl behavior. We were able to get some good pictures that showed the injured eye. We sent the photos to a Fish and Wildlife Officer. It's helpful to have the right friends during a wildlife encounter.
Wait...You Want ME To Catch A Great Horned Owl in a Towel?
The Wildlife Officer recommended I get towels and a box and capture the owl so it could be evaluated and taken to rehabilitation if need be. What?! You want me to just go grab some towels and catch a Great Horned Owl? (Remember, the wildlife officer is someone we knew, so apparently he had confidence in me...but I had less confidence in myself)
Thankfully, we were in the State Park. Instead of attempting to catch the owl myself, or put my kids at risk, we notified the Park Rangers who were on site. They grabbed the towels and a large box. If necessary, I probably could have caught the owl safely, but I felt it would be better to have more than one adult for the job.
Owls have amazingly sharp talons and their grip can crush the skulls of their prey... so capturing an owl is not a task to be taken lightly.
The Rangers put on heavy jackets and gloves before approaching the owl and moved very slowly and quietly in order to get close to the owl without startling it and risking it flying away.
The Park Rangers got within a few feet of the owl before it started to consider standing up or moving. Noticing that the owl was getting nervous, one Ranger gently threw the towel over the back of the owl, pinning the wings down and wrapping the bird up, making sure to avoid the talons.
Owls rely on their keen eyesight for hunting, so a damaged eye likely caused this owl to be unable to hunt effectively, which was why it was so lethargic and did not fly away. That also explains why the owl wasn't far from the low branches where it had spent the previous day.
Holding a Great Horned Owl...What To Do Next?
The Park Ranger was holding a Great Horned Owl in a towel, well aware that its talons are sharp and strong, and the beak is also dangerous. It was time to act. I brought the box near the trapped owl as the owl angrily clicked its beak. The beak clicking was the owls way of saying it was not happy about being wrapped up in a towel.
Once placed inside the box, the owl was quiet and still. Apparently it was tired from its short burst of beak clicking. We checked that the owl could stand and move around inside the box to make sure it wouldn’t injure itself further or suffocate. The box was buckled into the back seat of the patrol truck and brought to the office to wait for an animal control officer to pick it up.
Animal control brought the owl to a veterinarian in Wenatchee who was able to assess the damage. The last we heard, our owl is participating in a rehabilitation program. We hope it can be successfully rehabilitated and return to Lake Chelan State Park to resume hunting mice and moles and singing it’s night-time song for summer visitors.
What Should You Do If You Come Across Wildlife and You Think It Needs To Be Rescued?
I want to be clear, not all wildlife that looks like it’s injured or abandoned needs to be “rescued”. Every spring, many well-meaning people bring baby animals to the Park Rangers, veterinarians or animal control unnecessarily. Most mother animals tuck their babies in a safe location while they go hunt. Mothers also will leave their babies alone for long periods of time to help their survival rate. Many animals end up in captivity or die because of well intended people. Don’t be a fawn-napper!
So if you come across a baby animal who looks abandoned, STOP. Stop and take a breath, look around and decide if this baby may be tucked away safely while it’s mother takes care of her business. If you’re unsure, leave the area for 3-4 hours and then check on the baby again from a safe distance.
DO NOT TOUCH THE ANIMAL.
Maybe even come back the next day and see if the baby is gone. Most likely mom returned, fed her baby and moved to another spot. Almost everyone has a cell phone, do a quick google search and learn a bit about the animal you found. Most likely you will discover that you should leave it alone.
If you come across an injured animal, use caution! Remember, we didn’t try to trap the owl on the first day it was acting strange. We probably couldn’t have, and there’s a good chance we would have injured the owl further if we tried. We could have caused undue stress to an animal that was already struggling. We contacted professionals before we caught the owl. Animal Control said often owls are hit by cars (human inflicted injury) and they can successfully be rehabilitated and returned to the wild. But many other animals are better left alone.
Wild animals who are injured are unpredictable. Even docile animals like deer can be deadly when provoked. It is best to call instead of taking matters into your own hands. Even worse, if you come across a predator's baby, you could be attacked by a defensive, angry mother. (Who could blame her? I would fight for my kids as well)
Ideas of Who You Can Contact Regarding an Injured Animal
Department of Fish and Wildlife
Remember Nature Has Cycles and Food Chains. Animals Are Born, Animals Die and Contribute to Another Animal’s Survival
Wild animals are part of a complex network that typically functions best when left alone. Many species have way more babies than can possibly survive. It’s a tough reality, but this is the unique design of food chains and food webs. Predators rely on prey animals reproducing faster and creating enough prey to sustain the predator babies.
Imagine a world where every baby rabbit, mole, mouse and squirrel survived. The world would be OVERRUN. There has to be a balance with predators and prey, it’s best for the whole ecosystem. Double back and check out what happened in Yellowstone when the wolves (predators) were wiped out. The population surge of elk nearly destroyed the park.
So use caution and some common sense when dealing with wildlife. Sometimes animals are best left alone and we can let nature take its course. Other times we can step in and safely rescue an animal, giving it another shot at life. It’s often hard to know, so do some research, call an expert and do your best.