I was driving home at about 9:15 at night. An hour locals sarcastically refer to as “Marco midnight.” You see, not much happens on the island past 9 PM, especially in the off-season. Seldom do cars roam the streets and if they do, they’re headed to a bar, restaurants shut their doors, and the nocturnal beasties begin to crawl from their secret hiding places.
I was about to turn onto my street when I noticed a baby burrowing owl standing on the opposite side of the road. In front of me was a pair of headlights. I took a right-hand turn and pulled into my driveway. From there, I watched two cars pass over the spot where the owl had stood.
I figured, like most birds, the burrowing owl had flown away at just the right moment. But to be safe, I walked over and checked. I have a knack for getting myself into these types of situations. It seems like I’m always finding lost dogs or animals in peril. Over the years I’ve grown kind of fond of the owls, even if they hiss at me when I take my dog out for a walk at night.
As I neared the spot, I silently hoped that the bird had flown off and I could go along my merry way. I soon realized, however, that this was not the case. In front of me was the impossibly small owl, lying crumpled and sad on the side of the road.
They say people react to stressful situations in different and unexpected ways. I responded with pure frustration and just a hint of crazy. I asked the owl, out loud as I stood in the middle of the street by myself, “Why didn’t you fly away?” Unsurprisingly, he did not respond.
I got closer and bent down. It appeared that the owl had not been run over, but rather hit by a windshield. I looked into his eyes, which were open, and to my surprise they looked back at me. He blinked. The owl was alive.
I should point out that I don’t do well under pressure and the thought of watching an owl struggling for its last breaths overwhelmed me. I’m sensitive to violence of any kind, especially against the helpless. How was I supposed to help this little thing? What could I do?
At the Coastal Breeze News (CBN) we care about the environment. In the past, we’ve done countless stories about native species such as the burrowing owls, tortoises, and shore birds. I know we’ve shared information on what to do if you encounter an injured animal. Hell, I’ve even written about it before. But in that moment, all the information flew out of my head. I needed guidance.
So I did what any good employee would do, I called my boss at 9:30 at night, crying might I add, telling her about this owl on the side of the road. She answered on the first ring and told me to hold tight. She’d get the information we needed and head over.
In the meantime, as I haphazardly directed speeding cars around the owl, which I don’t recommend you do, I contacted the Burrowing Owls of Marco Island via their Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/OwlWatchMarco). I told them what happened and asked them to please help. They replied a few minutes later and asked for my location. They were sending someone over ASAP.
Right about now you may be asking yourself, “All this for an owl?” And I totally get that. But here’s my rational, Marco Island was their home first. Owls are constantly facing human-made threats, from loss of habitat to vehicular owlslaughter; I think the least we can do is help out when we can. If the owl had died in some sort of natural way, say being eaten by a hawk, I’d be okay with it. That’s nature, the cycle of life, so to speak. But having an owl die for some stupid human reason seemed unfair. Plus my new year’s resolution was to be a more conscientious person, hence standing in the middle of the road guarding an owl from oncoming traffic.
About 10 minutes after making contact with Owl Watch, Allison Smith, a graduate student from the University of Florida pulled up. Allison is currently banding the local owl population as part of a larger study. She hopped out of her car with a cardboard box. She, unlike me, was cool, calm, and collected. I guess she’s used to this sort of thing.
Allison approached the owl, picked it up and began examining. I sighed a breath of relief. The owl, despite all odds, appeared to be okay. It even moved its wings and stretched a bit. It was most likely shell-shocked, having had the wind knocked out of him.
Since the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at Conservancy of Southwest Florida closes at 8 PM, the owl would be staying with Allison overnight. She even sent me a photo of it standing up in its box looking at her with those big old eyes. At 7 AM the next day, a volunteer from Owl Watch picked the owl up and brought it to the good people at von Arx.
Fortunately, my little owl friend is okay. After being dropped off at the hospital he received oxygen and much-needed fluids/nutrients. As this writing he’s still there, but his outlook is good. Hopefully he’ll be released soon with a clean bill of health. I should note that the wildlife hospital does not usually provide updates. It’s a time-consuming process and they’ve got animals to take care of. So if you do drop an animal off, know that it is in good hands and you’ve done all you could to help.
Dealing with an injured animal can be stressful. They’re scared, you’re scared, and you don’t want to cause further harm. I decided to reach out to Allison again and ask her for some advice. I also contacted Catherine Bergerson, the director of marketing and communications at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. As they say, knowledge is power.
Allison told me that the best thing to do if you find an injured animal is to call the von Arx Wildlife Hospital immediately.
“They can help determine if the animal needs help and walk you through the best way to capture it,” she said.
Catherine echoed this sentiment. She told me that, “The number one thing you can do if you see wildlife that may be injured is to call our wildlife hospital.”
The von Arx Wildlife hospital is open seven days a week from 8 AM to 8 PM. If you encounter an injured animal during off hours, like I did, Allison urges you to still call. A voice recording will instruct you to carefully put a towel over the critters head and place it in a box overnight. In the morning you can call again or bring the animal to the hospital yourself. In the meantime, you can also contact Owl Watch by emailing OwlWatchMarco@gmail.com or directly messaging them on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/owlwatchmarco.
“If you’re able to transport the animal to the hospital we ask that people bring them to us,” Catherine said. “We do have some volunteers that are able to go out and pick up animals but the more we can rely on the community to help make that drive, the easier it is on our staff.”
For situations like mine, Catherine recommends keeping a box, a pair of gloves, and a towel in your trunk at all times. This way, you’ll never be caught off guard or underprepared.
“It can be an old laundry basket, a used towel, and some latex gloves,” she said. “It’s the easiest way to transport the animal and keep yourself safe.”
Finally, it helps to be a little more conscientious. Spotting owls and other wildlife can be difficult at night. Try and slow down during the summer months to avoid collisions.
“It’s definitely not easy to be a young burrowing owl,” Allison said. “A major source of mortality for owls is car strikes, even on residential roads with low speed limits.”
Around the summer and fall, burrowing owl chicks are just learning their burrows. According to Allison, they tend to sit in unusual places during this time, like on porch lights and in potted plants. The people over at Owl Watch get a lot of phone calls and emails from residents who think they have an injured owl sitting in an odd place around their home. But most of the time, it’s nothing to worry about.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time these owls are healthy and don’t need to be interfered with,” she said. “They just feel safe in that spot and are taking shelter for the day, and will move on.”
We’ve created a list of what to do if you encounter injured wildlife. Please cut this out and place it on your fridge, in your wallet, or just leave it in your car, whatever works best for you. I’d also urge you to save the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s von Arx Wildlife Hospital’s number in your cellphone. You never know when it may come in handy.