GUNNISON, Colo. – Shawn Williams was working on a construction site on Tuesday, April 13, and was about to cut down a tree at the Wonderland Nature School in Gunnison, Colo. an owl swooped into it just above his head.
“I saw these giant owl eyes. I thought, ‘Huh, that’s odd. Why did I just get buzzed by an owl?’” said Williams, who works for SAW Contracting LLC in Gunnison. “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.”
Williams says that he recognized that great horned owls are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so he paused all tree-cutting until he made contact with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The owls were safely removed from the tree and placed in the care of the CPW until their release on Wednesday, Aug. 18, at Gunnison State Wildlife Area.
“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. The real heroes are the wildlife managers who came out from CPW.”
CPW District Wildlife Managers Clayton BonDurant and Chris Parmeter along with CPW property technicians were dispatched to the scene. The technicians climbed to the nest, which was estimated to be in the tree about 35-40 feet above the ground, and lured the owlets out of the nest and into a sack.
“We were really appreciative of Shawn Williams and that company for doing the right thing and giving us a call,” BonDurant said. “We thought even if they waited to take down this tree, there was a chance the mom might abandon the nest before the owlets could fledge with all the work going on around that tree.”
Owls will usually adopt a suitable nest built by another bird. Sometimes Great horned owl nests are able to be successfully relocated, and the mother will follow. However, BonDurant said that the nest could not be relocated because the only other nearby area with suitable trees also had construction ongoing.
The owlets were taken by Wildlife Officer Jeremey Gallegos to the Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Del Norte, which is operated by CPW. Facility manager Michael Sirochman takes in between from 40 to 60 raptors per year and has maintained a better than 90% success rate in returning orphaned raptors to the wild.
“When you get siblings like that and they are that young, you’re providing them with the nutrition mom would have along with shelter,” Sirochman said. “In the case of these owls, you can provide them chopped up mice in a bowl and they eat right out of it. As they get older, you can give them whole mice when they are capable of ripping and tearing it by themselves.”
The owlets started in a small cage and were eventually moved to a larger aviary for their first flights.
As soon as owls in the wild leave the nest, they learn how to hunt from their mothers through observation.
Inside one of the 50-foot aviaries, Sirochman put a 20-foot long, 10-foot wide containment area where live prey was placed for coaching the owls to learn to hunt.
“They are pretty instinctual,” Sirochman said. “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.”
Along with mice, great horned owls eat other birds and small mammals. They are known to attack prey animals as much as three times their weight. Their bodies can reach as large as two feet in length and have wingspans up to five feet across.
Once the owls were large enough and had a firm understanding that rodents were food and how to catch them, they were ready for release.
“When you get them out of the cage for the last time, put them in a kennel and know they are returning to a normal life in the wild, it’s a rewarding feeling,” Sirochman said.
Great horned owls live an average of 13- to 15-year lifespan in the wild but can live into their 20s in some cases. For more information on great horned owls, go to this website.
For more information on Gunnison State Wildlife Area, go to this website.