WILSON, Wyo. — They first thought it was a baby turkey vulture, thin and severely dehydrated, jaw broken, eyes shut.
It was brought to the Teton Raptor Center after the Idaho Game and Fish found the nestling in late September, an odd time of year for baby birds. But when it arrived, the staff based in Wilson quickly realized it wasn’t a turkey vulture.
It was a baby barn owl covered in grit.
Just like all of the rescued birds brought to the facility in Wilson, near Jackson, this baby barn owl needed help. The staff provided antibiotics and food, rehabilitating the bird with hopes of returning her to the wild.
The barn owl grew stronger. She passed a flight test, and before her release, she needed to prove her capability to hunt for live prey.
The staff presented a mouse.
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“And the mouse came over to her feet, and she’d fly away,” said Meghan Warren, the rehabilitation coordinator at the Teton Raptor Center.
It was odd behavior to say the least. Later that week, Warren entered the barn owl’s enclosure and discussed the event with another staff member. As they chatted, Warren noticed something even stranger. She had been talking and making noise for five minutes, and the barn owl was still fast asleep.
Barn owls have some of the best ears on Earth: They can hear a mouse’s heartbeat from 10 feet away.
“And this bird hadn’t even woken up with them coming in, moving around and talking,” Becky Collier said, the senior avian educator at the Teton Raptor Center. “That’s when (we) started saying, ‘Wait a minute.’”
The barn owl was deaf. It did not matter whether she was born that way or lost her hearing via an unknown injury. Deafness is a debilitating trait for a bird that depends on hearing to survive. She could no longer be released.
Established in 1997, the Teton Raptor Center provides veterinary care and rehabilitation for birds of prey. The nonprofit also has an educational program featuring birds that are not fit to be released into the wild. The barn owl was a perfect candidate. The center went through proper paperwork, and officially added the barn owl to their education program on April 1.
She was the latest addition to a program that features a handful of birds, including a bald eagle, a golden eagle, a red-tailed hawk, owls, a falcon and more.
Roughly 100 birds are brought to the center every year, all for various reasons. Sometimes they’re struck by cars or electrocuted by power lines (the center avoids intervening with non-human-induced injuries). Currently, the center has five birds in rehab, receiving medication, food, a hyperbolic oxygen chamber, X-rays and more, all with hopes of returning the animal back into nature.
“I think in an ideal world, if you’re doing your job right, all rehab centers strive to put themselves out of business,” Collier said. “Because it means that people are driving slow and making wise choices. I think the key, though, is that accidents will happen.”
One of the recent accidents was a high-profile one. In March, an injured bald eagle was found on the side of the road in Jackson across from the National Elk Refuge. The eagle was rescued and brought to the center. When the staff entered the numbers listed on the eagle's leg band, the computer system revealed an error message.
“(The eagle) was so old that (her results) weren’t popping up to the top of the list,” Warren said.
That’s because this wasn’t an ordinary bald eagle. It was 34 years old, the oldest one ever found in the west. It hatched in a nest south of Jackson in 1982, when bald eagles were still on the Endangered Species list. Now, their populations are growing, and she is one of the reasons. A biologist estimated that this eagle probably had 35 to 45 chicks in her lifetime.
Now, she was in bad shape.
The eagle was electrocuted by power lines, an injury that primarily affects skin and blood flow. Originally, the center expected to release the eagle back into the wild, but in the coming weeks, the bird's injuries became worse, enough that Warren and the center made the difficult decision to euthanize it at the end of April.
“I was really looking for a silver bullet that would be a magic fix. I reached out to all of (the staff). I called a vet in Texas and one in North Carolina. I sent it out on this raptor care listserv just seeing if anyone had any ideas,” Warren said. “They all agreed that electrification wounds are very difficult and she probably wasn’t going to be releasable, and that euthanasia was the best option.”
It’s one of the difficult parts of the job. But stories like the bald eagle and the deaf barn owl are important. They spread beyond the center, capturing the imagination of those in Jackson and elsewhere, which is one of the center’s goals: Get people thinking.
“People really care about these live birds,” Warren said. “Through education, they learn more about what’s going on out in the wild landscape. The whole point is that we want people to leave here, get in their car, start driving down the road, look up and see a red-tailed hawk on a fence post.
“Just to see more birds, and be aware.”