Owlets Saved From Construction Site Released After Rehabilitation Stay

Three owlet siblings saved from a Colorado construction site in April were re-released into the wild last week after a four-month stay at a wildlife rehabilitation center. Thankfully, the owls hadn't been injured on site; however, they weren't big enough to fly. Wildlife officials wanted to ensure they could fly and hunt before re-releasing them into the wild.

In a media release on Thursday, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) shared that the three great horned owl siblings were discovered on April 13 in Gunnison by construction worker Shawn Williams.

"I saw these giant owl eyes. I thought, 'Huh, that's odd. Why did I just get buzzed by an owl?'" Williams told CPW. "I grabbed the chainsaw again and looked up to this small hole in the branches of the tree, and there was this little white head looking down at us. All of a sudden, I realized we shouldn't drop that tree."

Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—which prohibits lay people from transporting, capturing, killing, selling or trading protected migratory bird species without authorization—Williams couldn't touch the nest. So, he called CPW to assist in the relocation of the young birds.

"There was no way we were cutting that tree down and killing those babies," Williams said. "I had to call CPW and see what we could do, and the response time was amazing."

CPW District Wildlife Manager Clayton BonDurant and CPW Property Technician Jeremiah Rummel climbed an estimated 35-to-40 feet to lure the owlets from the nest and into a sack.

Typically, an officer would relocate the nest to a nearby tree; however, the nearest tree was also in a construction zone, and officials weren't sure they could move the nest to a tree close enough for the mother — which had flown away — to find.

"Great horned owls actually thrive in a variety of settings, from remote wilderness to populated mountain towns such as Gunnison, in this case, and even in cities, John Livingston, the public information officer for CPW's Southwest region told Newsweek. "They typically do not abandon their owlets, but a few circumstances made this a special case.

"All of that noise and commotion is one thing that could drive off a mother, but another aspect wildlife managers have to consider is how protective parent owls can be of a nest. They will swoop down and can even claw at people they believe are threatening their babies," he continued.

"And great horned owls have some pretty formidable talons."

With these considerations in mind, CPW officials made the tough decision to move the owlets to the Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

"There were too many questions about how far away we could move them while allowing mom to still care for them," BonDurant told Newsweek. "There were some issues in terms of the logistics that made rehab the better choice for us."

According to Audubon, great horned owls can fly when they are between nine and 10 weeks old, but they are fed by their parents for several months. In this case, the birds weren't yet big enough to fly, and without parents to provide food, officials needed to assume the role of the birds' mother to ensure their survival upon re-release.

At the beginning of their stay, CPW said the birds were put into a small cage and were fed "chopped up mice." As they grew older, they were moved to a larger cage, where they could fly and learn how to hunt.

"They are pretty instinctual," said Michael Sirochman, the facility's manager. "It's kind of like a cat—they see a mouse and they chase it. We have to make sure birds can catch mice before they leave here, and they get that reward of having nice, fresh food. After eating frozen mice or rabbits that are thawed to room temperature, I am guessing a nice fresh mouse tastes better to an owl."

On August 18, Sirochman—who was happy with the owls' progress—determined they were ready for re-release, and called CPW officials to transport the birds.

"This was really the best possible outcome for the birds and everyone involved," BonDurant said in the release. "To get them down from that tree, over to the rehab center to get growing and then to have them all take off and successfully fly away, it's really good to see how it all happened."

08/27/2021: This article was updated to include comments from CPW.

great horned owl fledgling
Three great horned owl siblings that were rescued from a construction site in Colorado were recently released into the wild after a rehabilitation stay. Stock image of a great horned owl fledgling. Cavan Images/iStock