I think owls have a special appeal because of their plump bodies, round heads and large, forward-facing eyes. They sit upright and resemble little persons in soft feathery suits. Let’s face it: Owls are cute!
The smaller the owl, the cuter it is. A tiny owl is as cute as a kitten (well, almost).
So when an unusual small owl was rescued in Corpus Christi, recently, we owl-lovers were all a-twitter.
The little creature was found by a cat in a neighborhood near the bay on the 30th of November. The cat’s owner took the bird away from it and called the animal rescue agency housed at UTMS in Port Aransas. The ARK (Animal Rescue Keep) was started by Tony Amos in the 1980s. Its mission is to rescue and rehabilitate injured birds and sea turtles found on the South Texas Coast.
Once the ARK personnel had picked up the owl, it was checked out by a veterinarian. No obvious injuries, no broken bones. But it was skinny (just 52 grams) and weak.
The rehabilitators (re-habbers, for short) offered it tiny bites of rat meat and live crickets. It had to be force-fed for a couple of days, but then the owl began to feed itself from the goodies placed in its cage. At first, it was given about 5 to 10 grams of food a day. The owl ate all of it. So the re-habbers upped its food to as much as 20 grams a day. That’s a third of its body weight in food! This little owl was a good eater.
But what kind of owl was this? It was smaller than an Eastern Screech-Owl (a fairly common small owl in Texas). It had gray-brown plumage but with orange streaks. And its eyes were deep brown, not yellow like screech-owl’s eyes.
It had to be a Flammulated Owl. The name refers to the orange flame-like streaks on its grey-brown wings and face. These streaks help camouflage the owl when it roosts in pine trees (especially Ponderosa Pines). The bark of the Ponderosa Pine is orange with dark crevices. When a Flammulated Owl leans up against the trunk, it looks just like a part of the bark.
To make themselves even more camouflaged when roosting, owls stretch their bodies upward asymmetrically. One side may have the “horn” or eartuft sticking up, the other side down. Stock still, with their eyes closed and in this odd posture, an owl looks more like a snag than a bird.
Flammulated Owls are usually found in the coniferous forests of the mountains and canyons of the western United States and Mexico. Except for the Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains, Flammulated Owls aren’t found in Texas. Although scientists are not sure of the exact route, Flammulated Owls do migrate in the fall from the northern parts of their range to the mountains of Central America. In late spring, they return to their breeding grounds of our western forests.
Could this owl in Corpus Christi be a vagrant? A vagrant bird is one that has somehow gotten off course. Or perhaps many Flammulated Owls regularly migrate by flying to the coast and then following the coastline south? This theory is supported by the fact that there are a few records of Flammulated Owls showing up on the Gulf Coast in fall. In fact, in late November of 2007, one turned up in Port Aransas!
Perhaps more bizarre (but very appealing!) is another theory. Some of us speculate that some Flammulated Owls are roosting in the dense foliage of firs grown on Christmas tree farms. When the trees are cut, surely during the daylight hours, the owls are fast asleep in the interior of the trees. They get bundled up with the trees and are shipped to Christmas tree lots. Several days later, hungry and dazed, the relocated birds try to make their living in a new habitat. Some are found and rescued. Interesting possibility, no?
The sweet little owl is doing very well in rehab. He (they think it is a male based on its weight) is feeding himself. He is up to 62 grams (about the weight of a ¼ cup of sugar!). Re-habber Guy Davis has nicknamed the owl “Duke.” To test its flying ability, Guy let Duke fly around the room. Although he favored one wing, Duke can still fly. But he will need to exercise. Guy reports that the owl will be moved to a flight pen, or perhaps an aviary, fairly soon so that he can strengthen his flight muscles.
The rescued owl is scheduled to remain at the ARK until spring. Then it will be released back to the wild. But where is its original home? Certainly it is not the Texas coast. Perhaps this Flammulated Owl will travel in a “big metal bird” back to the wilds of West Texas. Who knows?
Let’s all wish Duke, the Flammulated Owl, a speedy recovery and a happy release in a suitable habitat. And many thanks to all the folks at the ARK!