How I Saved a Baby Screech Owl

Screech owls are supposed to be up in a tree, but their fledglings often are found on the ground where they are in danger of predators. . (Photo: Mike Mullick/Shutterestock)

I have a soft spot for wounded birds, more so than other wildlife. I honestly think it has something to do with my name. Not only is my name Robin, but my maiden name is Swan (and my parents swear they didn't realize what they were naming me). When I find a bird that can't fly, my heart goes out to it. If there is something I can do to help, I do it.

Last week, I was on a walk with my dog Buddy in a wooded nature preserve near my house. It was supposed to be a half-hour walk to start the day off right. It turned into a rescue mission.

We took a narrow path we'd never taken before. I was compelled to take that path. And after walking about a few hundred feet, I came to a spot where I was compelled to stop to meditate for a short time.

I usually stop by water when I meditate. That day, a small curve in the path caught my attention. As I closed my eyes to start to meditate, I felt Buddy's leash pull. When I looked at what he was doing, he was sniffing around the bottom of a tree trunk, and then he jumped back. In the crook between two large roots, he had discovered a small owl.

I don't know much about owls, but I do know they don't usually hang out on the ground, hiding as best as they can. I also know I shouldn't do anything to help any critter until I know what the right thing to do is. I pulled back some of the weeds that were covering him, snapped a few photos for identification and put the weeds back.

screech owl
A fledgling screech owl, fallen from the nest and doing its best to stay hidden. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

Before leaving the spot, I put a photo up on Facebook asking for advice. Then I headed straight for the car, making sure to pay close attention so I could find my way back, without Buddy. By the time I pulled into my driveway, advice was already starting to funnel in. I quickly realized that no matter how many well-meaning pieces of advice I received, I needed to speak with an expert. So I phoned The Raptor Trust, a wild bird rehab center in North Jersey and texted photos to them.

They were wonderfully helpful. I was told it was a fledgling screech owl, and that it's not unusual for them to end up on the ground because owls are not great nest builders. When their babies get to be a certain size, it's common for them to fall out. Absent of any predators, it's not a problem because the parents will feed them on the ground until the fledgling can either figure out how to use its talons and beak to climb back up the tree or start to fly.

These woods did not lack predators, however. It's a popular dog walking spot, and many people allow their dogs to roam off-leash. There are also foxes in the area.

So I was told the bird's best chance of survival was to be "re-branched." I grabbed some gloves and headed back to the woods to pick up the little guy and put him on the nearest and highest branch I could reach. I also grabbed a bag to collect some kindling on my way out of the woods for my fire pit. It's a good thing I had that bag.

screech owl rescued in bag
Although probably upsetting to the little owl, he probably preferred being in a nylon bag for a little bit over being dinner for a fox. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

When I found the owl again, he had flies buzzing all around and some of them had landed on him. I called the Raptor Trust because I figured this changed things. They told me that the flies meant a probable open wound. I needed to take him to a wildlife rescue/hospital.

So I picked him up and put him in the bag. The people at the Raptor Trust texted me information about two nearby wildlife rescues. I reached the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge in Medford, New Jersey, and they told me to bring the owl in. It wasn't the first time I'd taken an injured bird there.

screech owl being rescued
Out of the bag and into a makeshift box/cage for the ride to the wildlife hospital. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

The rescue is about 45 minutes from my house, so we made a quick stop at my home to grab a box and some rags. I put an upside-down wire basket over top of him, and I covered that with another rag. He had room to sit however he wanted and plenty of air. Then we took a ride, and I chatted with him the whole way — somehow thinking it may calm him. He must have been frightened, but I reminded myself that what was happening to him was not nearly as frightening as being eaten by a fox.

I relinquished Munchkin — yes, I gave him a name on that 45-minute drive — to the refuge. When I got home, I made donations to both the refuge that took him and to the Raptor Trust that had given me the original advice. It costs money to rehab injured wildlife, and I wanted to thank both organizations for helping me and Munchkin that day.

What I learned

Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge
The Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge where the owl will be rehabilitated and taken back to the wild when he's ready. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

It's natural to want to help an injured creature, but we humans don't always know how to help.

Go to the experts. Throwing out the question on Facebook about what to do made me realize I needed an expert. There were so many different opinions from people who believed they knew the right thing. If you find an orphaned or injured animal, consult an expert before doing anything. Finding a trusted source online may help, too, but talking with someone is the best bet. It wasn't until we identified the kind of owl I had seen that we knew the best course of action, and I wasn't able to identify it by looking at photos online. The people at the Raptor Trust knew what kind of owl he was right away and knew it was safe for me to pick it up. A different species of owl might have had the type of mother that could have swooped down and attacked me.

Call before taking in an animal or bird. The refuge where I took the owl did not have any room left to take ducks. Their capacity to care for them was full. The other wildlife rescue that was suggested to me by the Raptor Trust made it clear on their answering machine that they would not take any animal unless you phoned ahead and got approval. So make sure a facility is able to care for whatever you're bringing.

Once you hand over the wildlife, let it go. These centers are very busy, and the people answering the phones are often the same people working with the animals. Calling back to find out how the critter that you rescued and dropped off is faring just gives them more work to do. Don't call. Clearly, they are better equipped to take care of the wildlife than you are, so trust them and let it go. (Warning: If you name the creature you've saved, it may be a little harder to let it go. You still have to let it go, though.)

Donate. If you can, make a cash donation. The wildlife center will probably have a suggestion about how much is appropriate considering what type of animal or bird you brought in. It's a suggestion. If you can afford it, great. If you can't, give what you can.