Last week, many of us who work at the Lake County Forest Preserves had to say a sad goodbye. Our resident eastern screech-owl (Otus asio) passed away in the middle of the night. This male owl had spent the past seven years as an ambassador for the Lake County Forest Preserves, teaching thousands of people about the adaptations of raptors and owls. I have seen time and time again—from school children on education field trips to adults attending special events—a person’s eyes lock in and a look of amazement wash over them upon meeting this charismatic bird.
Sadly, his story is not uncommon. This particular bird was recovered in January 2004 as a juvenile. He was found by a concerned citizen in a driveway in Round Lake, Illinois with obvious head trauma and his left eye swollen and filled with blood. He was taken to Barnswallow, a raptor rehabilitation center in Wauconda, Illinois. It is suspected that this screech-owl was hit by a car, but he also had tiny sores on his talons and translucent, sheared tail feathers. These latter symptoms are signs of secondary viral infections caused by the West Nile Virus. After spending 16 months at the rehab facility, he was deemed unsuitable for release back into the wild due to the uncertainty of his eyesight in the injured eye. In the spring of 2005, he came to live in his very own mews (i.e. flight cage) near the farm area at Ryerson Woods. There he joined another resident bird, a red tailed-hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).
The story of our current red-tailed hawk began 24 years ago when she was found in Highland Park, Illinois on the side of the road. A young bird and an inexperienced hunter, it is suspected that she was feeding on roadkill when she was hit by a car. She suffered an injured right wing and cannot gain altitude to soar and hunt. The staff at Ryerson Woods knew she was an immature bird because she had juvenile tail feathers and light eye color. The following summer she molted into her adult plumage, and her eye color darkened gradually over 2-3 years. The assumption that she was a female due to her larger size was confirmed when she began laying eggs. Each spring she adds sticks and evergreen branches to a nest provided for her in the mews. She has suffered some health issues during her long life, but her story has a few more chapters yet to be written.
Even though our screech-owl’s story has ended, his message continues. I recall walking into the mews during the screech-owl’s first August at Ryerson and gasping at the creature in front of me. His normally adorable face looked odd and alien-like, devoid of many of his feathers. My panic that something was desperately wrong with him was quickly replaced by the common sense of another naturalist when she matter-of-factly said, “He’s molting.” Sure, I had known that at the end of the summer many birds lose their feathers and replace them with new ones, but I had never actually seen it firsthand. This just goes to show that, although small in stature, this screech-owl was a titan when it came to really connecting people, me included, to nature and the lives of birds of prey.