Interview with a wildlife rehabilitation center volunteer - About Owls
To get a different perspective on owls, we interviewed a former volunteer from a wildlife rehabilitation center who worked with them. To be able to answer freely, since she doesn’t speak on behalf of the organization, she prefers to be anonymous. We of course respect her wish.
Following are the questions and answers from that interview.
How did you get the gig to volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation center in the first place? Tell us about the circumstances. We’re a little bit jealous!
I had been working in a completely unrelated field that was just a job to help pay the bills, but I was miserable there. It was obvious to everyone at work that I was miserable. Fed up with my bad attitude, they forced me to quit.
Then I was jobless and it forced me to take a hard look at what I REALLY wanted to do. My passions are for animals and the environment, but I hadn’t been working in jobs that reflected my passions, so I was deeply unfulfilled. I had worked in the veterinary industry, and that involved animals, but I really never liked the job itself: Working the reception desk.
The big problem I had was that my resume did not match my interests or passions, so I had to find a way to tailor my resume appropriately. I had heard that volunteering was a good way to get experience in activities you find rewarding, so that sometime down the road you might be able to find gainful employment doing those things.
I did an internet search to find local organizations that might be able to use volunteer help, and somehow I stumbled on my state’s Game and Fish website when I searched for “wildlife volunteer” or some similar phrase. I contacted the center’s director through their website, and that set the ball in motion.
Tell us about the wildlife center where you were volunteering with the owls.
As I mentioned, the center was part of my state’s Game and Fish department, so it was a government-run and government-funded facility. Of course, the politics of any government facility can have both pros and cons, but we’re not here to get into a political discussion.
As far as I could discern, their mission was twofold. The first part of their objective was to care for injured and/or abandoned wildlife and rehabilitate those animals for re-release to the wild. Along with that came responsibility to provide lifetime care for animals with infirmities that would not allow them to ever be re-released.
The second purpose was to educate the public about local wildlife and the interconnections of all the animals within their ecosystems, including the challenges their needs and behaviors pose in terms of conflicts with humans. When people have a better understanding of animals and their place in the web of life, it is better for finding solutions that work for humans and wildlife alike.
They fulfilled the education part of the mission by taking animals out “on program”, for example, to schools and special events, to teach about their individual needs and behaviors. I did not personally participate much in the educational part though. My primary purpose was to care for the basic needs of the animals on site at the center.
When you mentioned volunteering, you used the past tense. Why did you stop volunteering there?
That’s where the politics portion comes in. There were some management changes that led to some policy changes and the center basically did away with the whole rehabilitation side of their model, focusing solely on the education piece. There were still some animals left at the center, but only those that were useful for education and able to be taken out on program.
The others were sent to various other centers and zoos around our state – maybe even out of state; I’m not really sure where they all ended up. With the majority of the animals gone, the volunteer program basically went away and they didn’t need me anymore.
We’re here to talk specifically about the owls. What were some reasons for the owls to be in the rehabilitation program in the first place?
Owls came to the center for various reasons. It’s been a while now since I’ve worked with them, so I’ll have to scan my memory a little.
I remember one particular Great Horned Owl who was blind. I never knew how he became that way. He may even have been born that way, for all I know. He shared an enclosure with two other GHO’s. His pupils were huge, so it was easy to tell which one he was.
My trainer instructed me that his food bowl needed to always be put in the same place within the enclosure, so that he could find it. The water bowl, which he shared with the other owls, also needed to stay in a consistent place.
I remember always being very careful not to startle him and moving slowly and deliberately while I was in that enclosure to avoid frightening him. I also remember that the way he turned his head to hear me was a little eerie-looking, especially with his humongous pupils. All owls do that, but somehow the way he did it just looked different to me.
Besides the blind GHO, we had owls with other injuries that would prevent them from ever thriving in the wild again, too. We had owls with permanent wing injuries, and I think I remember one with a deformed foot. I think quite a few of them came in to us after being electrocuted on power lines.
I struggle to remember all the different infirmities now, because it’s been quite a while since I worked there.
What determined their re-release and how did that affect differences in their care?
The big question when determining if an animal can be re-released to the wild is a little bit subjective, really. An “expert” on that particular kind of animal determines whether that individual would be able to survive on its own following re-release.
I tend toward having more faith in nature than some people may, I think. Unless the infirmity is pretty severe, I believe most wild animals should stay that way, for their own benefit and for the benefit of the larger ecosystem, which can profit from some weaker animals available to become food for other animals. It sounds harsh, I know. But nature can be harsh.
Specific to the owls, we needed to severely limit human exposure with those determined to be re-releasable. Too much human contact could keep them too dependent on human care, and also make them trust people too much. That’s the case with any wild animal.
Once they were medically ready so that humans would no longer need to have any ability to catch them for treatments, we moved them to a different kind of enclosure to help them exercise their flight muscles. We called it the “flight pen”. Actually, we had several flight pens. They were significantly larger than the regular enclosures, and had very high ceilings. I’m bad at judging heights, but to compare to an apartment building, they were at least a couple of full stories high. There were multiple perches inside, and fake trees.
When feeding and watering the owls in the flight pens, and also when cleaning them, we had to be in and out quickly, and we varied the places where we placed their food, so they could have some practice “hunting” – although the hunting challenge was still not as great as it would be in the wild, since we didn’t feed them live animals that could potentially escape the flight pen.
Speaking of food, what were you feeding the owls? Where did you get their food?
Yeah, that part was really tough for me, as someone who loves animals of all kinds. I hadn’t even thought about the food source until one day when I answered the bell at the entrance and it was a delivery person from a laboratory who was bringing us live rodents who had outlived their usefulness to the lab.
We had a barrel onsite for “euthanizing” the rodents with gas. They were both rats and mice. People at the center used the word “euthanize”, but it felt like a euphemism for “murder” to me, so they never required me to involve myself in that process. It really makes me want to cry to think about it even to this day, because I have a soft spot for rodents. I just didn’t want to participate in that, and as a volunteer, I was not required to do anything I found distasteful or objectionable.
Of course, I also understand that owls need to eat. I did feed the rodents to the owls, but they were always dead already by then, having been stored in a deep-freezer and defrosted. Occasionally, I would pull them from the freezer.
Someone else was in charge of doing the food prep, which I know sometimes involved stuffing rodents with supplements. I only know that because I saw the food prep and asked about the powder they were putting into the rodents they were slicing open. I just delivered the meals though. I didn’t prepare them.
Maybe the owls viewed me as a waiter of sorts. I was a waiter who shouldn’t spend much time in conversation; just leave the food and get out of their sight. The size of the owl determined whether the meal would be a mouse or a rat. The menu was pretty limited.
What kinds of owls did you have at your center? Were there special accommodations for different kinds of owls?
We had quite a few Great Horned Owls. They were definitely in the majority. Their enclosures had multiple perches, and some of them had fake trees “growing” in them, even though they weren’t very big enclosures.
We had a couple of Barn Owls, who had a nesting box and perches. They seemed exceptionally afraid of me, and I’m not sure why. They were a mating pair.
We had an adorable tiny Western Screech Owl. He was the cutest little guy!! Because of his size, he was in a significantly smaller enclosure and he had a little nest he would go in and peer out at people from a safe vantage point.
We had Burrowing Owls in an enclosure that was set up a lot differently than the others. Because they typically live underground in tunnels that they have reclaimed from burrowing animals that have abandoned them, we had an artificial tunnel for them to live in.
Incidentally, I also volunteered for another local organization that builds artificial tunnels for Burrowing Owls, but that’s another story. It is likely our Burrowing Owls ended up there after they were displaced by construction, but I am only speculating.
There was a mound just outside the opening of the tunnel for the “alarm owl” to perch on instead of a traditional perch. It is customary for Burrowing Owls to live in groups, and assign the role of alarm owl to one member at a time. The alarm owl was in charge of alerting the others of approaching danger before retreating himself. Therefore, I rarely saw more than one at a time, although there were four of them in there.
Unlike the others, the Burrowing Owls actually did have an additional item on their menu. In addition to a daily mouse, I served them live mealworms. A few times, I was able to observe them sneaking out of their burrow to grab the food and run. They’re awfully cute!
Tell me about your duties on a typical day with the owls.
When I first started volunteering at the center, my primary responsibility was to clean all the animal enclosures, which generally consisted of raking up the ground under the perches of the owls and disposing of the contents of what I had raked up, including the owl pellets they had coughed up and the urea – a bird’s digested waste – on the ground.
Also, I was in charge of cleaning the urea off the walls at the back of the enclosures with a hose and scrub brush, and cleaning and refilling their water bowls, which tended to get pretty filthy. Oh – and I had to watch out for black widow spiders, who liked to live on the underside of the bowls, because the “U” shape of the bowls provided a perfect hiding spot for them. Yikes!
One interesting thing that was part of cleaning owl enclosures was the feather collection. It’s illegal for regular citizens to own any part of a wild bird, including the feathers. I’m not sure why, exactly. I never looked that far into the legality.
➤ INFO NOTE ➤
This is regulated by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act Protected Species list. You can find it HERE
But because the feathers are a prized part of Native American culture, and indigenous people are exempt from that law, we had a program in which we collected the larger and nicer feathers to share with the tribal members.
Again, I don’t really know much about the specifics; just that when I found a nice feather, I was supposed to bring it into the office to add to the Native American collection. The small, dirty, or broken ones were to be put in the trash. I could have gotten in big trouble had I actually tried to keep any of the feathers.
Eventually, I worked my way out of the cleaning duties as new volunteers came on that took that over. Cleaning is considered a duty for “newbies”. I had full-time employment by then, so my volunteer duties had scaled back quite a bit and I was unavailable to volunteer during the day. I became a “night-feeder”: In charge of feeding the nocturnal animals one night a week.
It was a pretty simple job. The person who did food prep would prepare all the food and I would follow a list of each animal’s dietary requirements for that day, and then I carried a food tray around and distributed according to the list. For example, enclosure number one needs three large rats, pen number two needs a mouse, number three needs one mouse and eight mealworms, and so on.
By the time I got there in the early evenings, the rodents were usually pretty much defrosted. The biggest challenge I faced was walking around the grounds in the dark. It was not well-lit at all, so I used the flashlight on my phone to find my way around. The other challenge was opening the enclosures while holding my tray of food when it was still pretty full. I’m not very graceful.
Most of the owls ate their food directly from the perch where I placed it, or from the ground, if the rodent fell down. The Great Horned Owls were usually ready for their dinner and ate immediately while I was still in the enclosure. They were masters of intimidation and seemed to have little fear of me.
The Barn Owls were more timid and made a lot of warning sounds to scare me away so they could eat, but would sometimes eat while I was there, as long as I was not too close. The Western Screech Owl and the Burrowing Owls were very shy and waited until I left.
Do you have any good stories to share from working with the owls?
As I mentioned, the Great Horned Owls had a tendency to be pretty fearless, especially at meal time. One of them became especially bold and began anticipating her nighttime feeding. She got pretty aggressive about it. She wanted her rat and she wanted it immediately!
When I entered her enclosure one night with her rat, I had no sooner picked it up from my tray to place on her perch when she came flying right at me, talons outstretched, flapping her huge wings right in my face, and snatched the rat right out of my hand. In my surprise, I dropped my entire full tray of food on the floor of her enclosure and I had to scramble to pick up everything while watching over my shoulder for another “attack”.
The following week I was ready for her. I set my tray down outside the enclosure and brought in ONLY her rat, which I held away from my face and body. I also had my phone ready to take a video in case it happened again, but she didn’t fly at me again, which disappointed me a little bit because I wanted the video of an owl flying at me.
I later found out that she had been doing the same thing to other volunteers and they changed her protocol for volunteer safety, having us leave her rat just inside the door for her and not coming all the way inside.
In preparation for our interview with you, we invited the subscribers of our NEWSLETTER to ask you anything they want. We didn’t expect that so many would participate with such enthusiasm, therefore we have decided to focus on the most frequent ones. Are you game to answer a few of those?
I’ll do my best, although I’m not really an expert, so it’s “off the dome”. I am happy to try to answer the best I can in terms of what I learned through my own experiences, though.
➤ How do owls need to be handled?
I didn’t really handle the owls myself, except one time when there was a little bit of cross-training and one of the education program volunteers showed me how. I don’t remember a lot about that, but she had me put on a thick, heavy glove to protect my arm from the talons. The owl, named “Olivia” was one of our Great Horned Owls, but one accustomed to being handled, so she was a bit tamer than others at the center.
Olivia wore a “jess”, which is a leather band that fits around the owl’s leg. The jess had a leash that attached to it on one end and to the glove on the other end. That was to keep her from flying away, since her flight feathers were intact.
The experienced volunteer instructed me to hold my arm parallel to the ground so the owl would feel secure. She also said to be mindful of my energy because if the owl sensed any nervousness on my part she might respond in a negative way. I’m not sure exactly how that manifest, but I wasn’t feeling fearful anyway. I thought it was cool. However, she was surprisingly really heavy and I couldn’t hold her with my arm in that position for very long!
➤ Are owls really wise?
I believe most animals are wise in their own specialties. I don’t think owls corner the market, but certainly they have their own uniqueness, and therefore, their own wisdom. It is my opinion that as humans, we have a tendency toward pride and arrogance that other members of the animal kingdom do not possess or express. We don’t give other species the credit that they deserve.
➤ How do owls connect and communicate with one another?
This one is a little tricky for me, since at the time I was volunteering, I wasn’t paying as much attention to animal communication as I do now. Also, my job with them was much more focused on taking care of their basic needs but not in relating with them. I don’t really know how they communicate with others of their species, but I did experience a few forms of owl communication.
Everyone is familiar with the “who-whoo” sound that Great Horned Owls make, even if their only association with the owl is the cartoon version who licked the lollipop in the old television commercials! I heard that sound quite a bit while I was at the center, but honestly don’t know its meaning.
I also heard a lot of the loud clicking sounds that owls make to try to scare away anything or anyone they find threatening. The Barn Owls, especially, clicked at me almost every time I entered their enclosure. The clicking increased in intensity when I approached them to place their food on their perch or to look inside their nesting box.
In addition to the sounds I heard the owls make, they communicated their aggression, likely brought on by fear, with body language. I suppose that was an attempt to scare me out of their enclosure. The Great Horned Owls puffed up their feathers and moved their heads down low and from side to side, making themselves look much larger than they normally looked, and more intimidating. That approach would certainly scare me if I encountered one in the wild, in an uncontrolled environment.
➤ I saw an owl in broad daylight once. Aren’t they supposed to be nocturnal?
For the most part, owls are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night and sleep during the day. Burrowing owls are diurnal though, and sleep at night like we do.
My best guess as to why people would see or hear an owl during the day is that the owl just happens to be up at that time, like we would be if we had insomnia. If you can’t sleep, you might as well be productive, so perhaps the owl you saw was making the most of a time when he couldn’t sleep, and was out hunting. An owl might ask the same question: “Hey, aren’t humans supposed to be diurnal? Why did I see one out at night?”
➤ How many babies do they have at one time?
I am honestly not at all familiar with the clutch sizes of owls. My experience with owl eggs and babies is really limited. The Barn Owl pair at the center would occasionally go through an egg-laying phase, and sadly, we were instructed to remove the eggs from their nesting box and throw them away because we couldn’t allow the birds to reproduce.
The center would have needed to legally reclassify as a breeding facility if they allowed viable eggs to hatch, and that would come with extra regulation and red tape that they were not willing to deal with. There would simply be no reason to breed more birds to keep captive.
I understand why we couldn’t allow them to hatch, but I was sad every time I had to remove one of their eggs while I was cleaning. Checking the nesting box was one of the regular cleaning duties that I was glad to give up, so that I wouldn’t have to take their eggs away anymore.
➤ How do owls indicate displeasure, trust, or friendliness?
I never really saw any indication of trust or friendliness that I could discern, beyond a willingness not to attack me when I entered their enclosure. In my volunteer duties, that really didn’t come up for me. They may have communicated those things, but it was subtle enough for my human understanding to fail to recognize.
I did see displeasure and mistrust, however, as I mentioned earlier. When the owls felt threatened they would click at me, and/or puff up to become larger and try to intimidate me into going away.
➤ What’s up with their rotating heads? Is that trait unique to owls?
Owl eyes are fixed on the front of their heads, and the eyes themselves do not move around in their eye sockets like ours do, so they evolved with the ability to move their heads all the way around to help them see in all directions. I don’t know much about the specifics of how they are able to do so, but I think it’s a pretty cool superpower.
In terms of the uniqueness of the ability, I would say that yes, they are unique in the distance or degree they are able to swivel their heads, but that most birds have the ability to rotate their heads pretty far. Owls tend to get the most press for it though, probably because they can swivel the furthest, so it looks odder to us.
➤ Those are all the questions we had prepared for you today. We appreciate your taking the time. Thank you so much.
It was my pleasure to talk with you about owls. As an animal and nature lover, it’s a topic I can happily spend all day discussing. Thank you for the opportunity.