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A Guide to the Rehabilitation of Barn Owls and Other Raptors

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"Help! There is an owl on the ground!"

Capturing and Transporting a Barn Owl

Issues Relative to Wildlife Rehabilitation

Tips for Handleing Injured Raptors

What to Do In a Wildlife Emergency

Locating a wildlife rehabilitator in your area


"Help! There is an owl on the ground!"

If you have found an owl that is unable to fly, here are three common situations with suggested courses of action.

Scenario Number 1: A fledgling owl with adult plumage.

Some morning, during an inspection of your fields, you may find a young owl cowering among the rows in the vicinity of one of your nest boxes. It has lost its downy white plumage in exchange for the appearance and plumage of an adult. Apart from being unable to fly, it is healthy, alert and there are no signs of a trauma on the owl or a struggle in the immediate vicinity. When you get too close, it may take a defensive position and spread its wings and hiss loudly.

The obvious assumption that you could make is that the owl has grown to the stage where it should be able to fly and the parents have coaxed it out of the nest. Being young and unconditioned, it simply didn't make it to shelter. Before rescue measures are taken, it is important to observe the young owl closely for a few days. Chances are its parents know exactly where it is (and are probably watching you at this very moment) and will continue to provide for it until it gets strong enough to fly to a safer location on it's own.

What to do: Observe it for a period of time, perhaps several days. Note at each visit, its general state of health. Alertness and a willingness to actively defend itself are indications that it is still being cared for by its parents. Only when you conclude that the fledgling is at risk, should you take rescue measures and take it to a rehabilitation center. At risk conditions are: (1) you are absolutely certain the fledgling has been abandoned; (2) the fledgling appears to be failing, (sluggish, unresponsive); (3) the fledgling is in danger from the elements, (heat, cold, etc.); (4) the fledgling is potentially threatened by other animals or humans.

Scenario Number 2: An owl chick with immature plumage

In the case of a grounded, immature owl that is obviously going to be unable to fly for some time, it is safe to assume that the chick was forced from the nest prematurely for one reason or another. It still has the downy white feathers of a baby, or possibly is in between stages and has partially developed its adult plumage. Being young and needing the care of it's parents, it may be severely affected by the elements, dehydrated or hungry. You may find it alert and actively trying to defend itself or it may be sluggish an unconcerned.

It is not uncommon for a young barn owl to be forced from the nest. This happens because the hen begins incubating the eggs as they are laid. Barn owls frequently lay up to eight eggs and sometimes more, so there can be a significant age difference between the oldest and youngest nestlings. Competition for food can be tough. In fact, older chicks many times turn on a younger one and attempt to make it into their next meal. Sometimes a chick will leave the nest prematurely in order to escape the an aggressive sibling.

What to do: Returning a young chick to the nest box could result in death for the young bird. It is also likely that it is thirsty and hungry and perhaps in need of medical assistance. Rescue measures in this case are advisable. Capture the owl using the steps below. Call the nearest raptor rehabilitation center to let them know you are coming and then deliver the bird to them.

Scenario Number 3: An adult owl

If you discover an adult owl on the ground during the day that is unable to fly, the chances are good that it is either sick or injured. Rescue measure will be required, but first, the safety of the bird, and above all, the safety of humans must be considered. Please read Tips for Handling Injured Raptors and What To Do In A Wildlife Emergency before proceeding. Handling an adult raptor can be dangerous.

After this material has been reviewed, please read Capturing and Transporting a Barn Owl.

Capturing and Transporting a Barn Owl

Note: Before attempting to catch the owl remove all dogs from the area. This operation should be done with two people, although one person can also do it. All other people should stand back so as not to needlessly excite the bird.

Items Needed: A pair of heavy gloves (welding gloves work very well.), an old bed sheet, a paper grocery bag (for barn owls or kestrels)or a cardboard box with a lid (for larger raptors). A stapler is also helpful if a grocery bag is to be used.

Caution: Adult barn owls have sharp talons and can injure you if you allow them to get a hold of your hand or arm. Hawks or other raptors have beaks that can also cause injury.

  1. Approach the bird calmly, talking in a low voice only when needed to communicate with others involved. Try not to excite the bird any more than necessary.
  2. Quickly cover the owl with the sheet, holding down the edges to prevent escape from beneath. This will make it unable to see you and allow you to take hold of it.
  3. With hands gloved, and without removing the sheet, locate the owl and hold it gently but firmly to keep it still.
  4. Once the owl is under control, quickly slide one hand under the sheet and firmly grab the owls by both legs above the feet. Do not allow it to grab you instead, because it may be difficult to get it to let go.
  5. Remove the sheet with while holding the owl's legs. Keep your fingers out of the grasp of the talons.
  6. Still holding the legs firmly, gently fold the birds wings across its back and put it into the grocery bag or box. Fold over the top of the bag and staple it shut.
  7. Take it directly to a rehab center. Do not expose it to drastic temperature changes enroute. Do not attempt to peak into the bag. Keep the owl away from loud noises.

Please note: Most rehabilitators bear the cost of rescuing birds out of their pocket. While they will probably not ask for a donation, any contribution you make will gratefully be accepted.