Rehabbed Blue Ridge owls to be set free in new home

Posted: December 8, 2012

The Winchester Star

A barn owl rehabilitated by Dr. Belinda Burwell of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in flies above her head in the flight cage at the facility Friday.
A barn owl gets in some flight time at the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Millwood Friday. The owl and another barn owl will be released back into the wild today on a farm in Front Royal. One of the owls suffered from a broken wing and the other had been mauled by another animal. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)
This barn owl, rehabilitated at the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center in Millwood, will be released back into the wild today on a farm in Front Royal. (Photo by Jeff Taylor/The Winchester Star)

MILLWOOD

One of the brown and gray owls does what barn owls do in the daytime — sleep.

The other wings its way around the circular flight cage at the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, eyeing the people standing below.

“We think he’s the boy,” said Dr. Belinda Burwell, the veterinarian who heads the Clarke County facility that rehabilitates injured birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles. “There’s a little difference in the feathering.”

The two young owls have been at the center for about six months, recovering from injuries.

One had a broken wing, perhaps from an encounter with a car. The other had been mauled by another predator and left lying in a field.

They came from different places, but today they are beginning a life together.

Burwell hopes.

She has arranged to release the owls at Oxbow Farm in Warren County. There, an unused silo has been equipped with a nesting box, which it is hoped they will adopt as their new home.

They won’t be returned to the areas where they were found, Burwell said, because neither place has the proper kind of habitat for a barn owl.

She believes the two birds are juveniles.

“A high percentage of them die their first year,” Burwell said, if they can’t find the right hunting territory and a safe place to hide from predators during the day.

As a species, barn owls have been disappearing throughout the area, she said, probably because they are losing habitat.

At night, “They like to hunt over open farmland” seeking rodents, Burwell said, “and they like to nest in old barns. Those things are disappearing in this area.”

Another problem for barn owls is the fact that farmers have been using poison to rid themselves of rats and mice. If the bird eats a poisoned mouse, it also dies.

The new territory should be perfect, Burwell said, because the farm produces organic hay.

On an organic farm, “we’ve found the safest place we can for these guys.”

Barn owls are also called “monkey-faced” owls because of their facial markings. They do not “hoot,” Burwell said. Instead, they make a raspy, strangling noise.

And they are remarkably silent flyers.

“They are absolutely quiet as they fly,” she said. “With any other bird that size, as it went flapping by, you’d hear it.”

Although barn owls are jealous of their nesting sites, they will share hunting territory with other owls.

Owls also mate for life, Burwell said, so if these two pair off, they may stay together in their new nest site and “hopefully start a family.”

The farm owner constructed the nesting box high on the silo wall.

“We’ve done everything we can to make them feel right at home,” Burwell said.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com