It Takes a Village to Heal an Owl

By Lauren Adams, Lead Wildlife Keeper
And Jordan Daley, Science Outreach Coordinator

On January 16th the Center for Wild Bird Rehabilitation admitted our 6th patient of 2016. BDOW 16-006 is a very lucky Barred Owl. Some kind individuals rescued her after a collision with a vehicle in Thetford, VT on the evening of January 15th. Ted Levin, one of the rescuers, kept the bird safe and quiet overnight, and then brought her to VINS in the morning.

This started as a very typical case. Barred Owls are some of the most frequent patients we see here, and vehicle strikes are the most common reason. This Barred Owl arrived in rough shape. She suffered some injuries that consistent with vehicle strikes: head trauma, eye damage, and bruising. The bird had a very swollen and bruised left eye, which seemed painful. She was fortunate enough not have sustained any fractures of bones, or any other significant injuries. Because the rescuers acted so quickly after the incident, we did not find any emaciation or feather damage.

We immediately started the owl on anti-inflammatory medications and fluid therapy. Initially, she wasn’t eating, so we had to hand-feed the bird, which is common for injured animals, most likely due to pain and stress. By the end of January, she had ended her course of medications and had started to eat on her own consistently. Her attitude had improved greatly, and she was moved to a larger, outdoor enclosure. On February 9th, she was moved to our flight cage for pre-release flight conditioning and evaluation.
Toward mid-February, we were all very impressed with the bird’s progress and improvement, but one thing was clear:  she had permanent damage to her left eye.  What started out looking like a blood clot in the retina, turned into a cloudy and completely non-functional eye. Upon physical examination, we discovered that the globe had begun to collapse. BDOW 16-006 had done so well in rehab, and was behaving perfectly healthy. The eye damage was the final obstacle to overcome before she could be released.
While many birds need both of their eyes for survival in the wild, and would be considered non-releasable without one eye or with permanent eye damage, Barred Owls can survive with just one eye. As nocturnal creatures, Barred Owls rely primarily on their excellent hearing in order to hunt. Like most other predators (including humans!) owls have binocular vision, in which both eyes face forward. This means the field of vision for each eye includes a lot of overlap, so losing an eye means they lose very little of their field of vision.
On February 15th, Dr. Blakely Murrell-Liland of the Kedron Valley Veterinary Clinic, helped us out with a special consultation. We agreed that the bird would be best off if the damaged eye was surgically removed. This would ensure a clean and closed site where the eye used to be, which will be less likely to pick up an infection in the future. 
Eye-removal surgery is not something we do on-site at VINS, so we enlisted the help of the wildlife rehabilitation program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Massachusetts. With a team of wildlife veterinarians, vet techs, and surgical equipment, they were happy to operate on the Barred Owl. BDOW 16-006 was transferred down to the Tufts Veterinary Hospital on February 23rd.  The surgery went smoothly, and the bird recovered from the operation on pain medications until March 5th, when she was ready to come back. Bright, alert, and feisty as ever, she was transferred back to VINS. Once her sutures had healed, she returned to our flight cage where she again impressed us all with her flight and her appetite.
The last step before setting up the release was a live-prey test. We can tell a lot by observing flight, behavior, and feeding habits, enough to be confident in a bird’s ability to hunt successfully and survive so not all of our patients have to demonstrate their ability to hunt on a live prey animal. However, when a bird has sustained a permanent disability we need to be 100% certain that it will be able to hunt successfully in the wild.
To no one’s surprise, BDOW 16-006 passed the live-prey test easily. She was ready for the wild. We released the bird back where she came from in Thetford, Vermont. The Barred Owl flew off beautifully on a sunny afternoon on March 30th, after spending 76 days in care. It was thrilling to see her go after such a long road to recovery. 
You might say this was a lucky bird to have so many people care about her, but we know luck has very little to do with it. Between the rescue, the rehabilitation at VINS, the surgery at Tufts, and the release, this owl fell into the safety net designed just for this purpose. VINS is proud to be a part of this network of skilled, informed and interested citizens, volunteers, rehabilitators, veterinarians and institutions that made BDOW 16-006’s release possible!

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