Giving a Hoot

By Gretchen Lieff   |   August 13, 2020
(From left) Emil Garcia, John Pearcy, Miles Hartfeld, Gretchen Lieff, Claire Garvis, with (sitting) Avery Berkowitz and Conny Pearcy, at Lotusland before the owl’s release to its natural habitat

Owls have long lived in my most favorite category. Their stoic demeanor. Their wisdom. The intensity of the screech owl’s screech, the trills and lonely melodic resonance of the great horned owl’s “hoot hoots,” and the barn owl’s hissing rasp.

This great horned owl was struck on Highway 101 and brought to the Wildlife Care Center. Sadly, he didn’t make it

Twice this week the California Highway Patrol rescued owls hit by a car along Highway 101 in Santa Barbara. An unfortunate statistic. I’m told that the owls spot dead animals along the shoulder and dive down to examine the situation, surprising an unassuming motorist. One particular adult barn owl was spotted by a driver along the center divider at Turnpike Road. The CHP officers brought him directly to the Wildlife Care Center in Goleta.

“A passing motorist called into dispatch. We stopped traffic,” a CHP dispatch officer said. “[CHP Officer] Jim [Mann] took a towel and picked him up and we got a box from the gas station and covered him so he wouldn’t be scared. Glad this place is here to take him in.”

Have you guys ever rescued an owl?

“No, but it always feels good to help an animal, it’s the same as helping a person. It’s our job.”

Three days later it happened again. “This is the California Highway Patrol,” said a CHP dispatch officer.“We have an injured owl recovered along highway 101 at Patterson.”

Again the CHP stopped traffic. This time a magnificent great horned owl was dragged along the pavement, battered and bruised with possible brain trauma. He was rushed to the center. He didn’t make it.

It was early twilight in Montecito and we found ourselves ambling through the Lotusland Fern Garden. Our mission: to release an adorable young western screech owl into the lofty treetops of this magical place. Connie and John Pearcy were playing hosts as Lotusland’s Bob Craig guided us to the release spot.

Avery Berkowitz, the Director of Animal Care at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network, explains the anatomy of the owl eye

The release was officiated by our rock star wildlife vet Avery Berkowitz, the Director of Animal Care, who commandeered the optimum owl release position. “We don’t want to impact his flight from the box,” Avery said. “We don’t want to get in his way.”

Our ever-enthusiastic photobug Priscilla, standing in the bushes, was nearly forcibly ejected from the flight path, as we readied for the big moment. And then bingo: Priscilla captured the perfect shot as the little grey owl with a big voice burst up into the treetops to freedom.

Priscilla later told me that of all Montecito high-profilers she’s shot, this photo of a renewed chance at life for this little bird brought her more personal joy than nearly any celebrity exclusive.

This newly released screech owl was just one of thousands of animals brought to the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network as a traumatized orphan. They are given a second chance,  stabilized and rehabilitated and then returned to the wild – ideally to the same spot they were found.

The most unsettling wildlife image I ever saw was of this great horned owl pulled recently from a Ventura oil pit. This majestic creature was quietly dying; his eternal gaze of sadness was agonizing. He stared out at us with a quiet and noble fortitude.

“As fast as possible trained SBWCN staff washed him with warm water and Dawn soap,” said Claire Garvais, Director of Communications at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network. “Oil washing is one of the most stressful things for a wild animal. We washed him as much as we could then let him sit to rest. After an hour, he began to stand up straight in his heated enclosure. The next morning he was transferred to International Bird Rescue in San Pedro where it was discovered he had significant amounts of oil in his lungs.” If the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network had had its new Wildlife Hospital up and running this owl might not have died. The hospital will break ground in September.

Wildlife Care Network is on its way to designing the perfect custom owl box

One early Sunday morning recently, Avery sent a thrilling email: “I just wanted to let you know we hung the owl box you left for me inside a small raptor enclosure. The juvenile barn owl we just released there appears to have spent the night in the box! While they may not really use them except for breeding in the wild, they do appear to like to use the box to hide in when stressed in care.”

How great that the box helped the owl! It’s a team effort always at the Wildlife Center, as we find ourselves now on our way to designing the perfect custom owl box.

As the memory of the oiled owl fades from recollection, there is renewed hope that soon Santa Barbara and Montecito will be populated by these beautiful owl boxes, to help and support our local owl friends through the challenges of our shared world.


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