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Stephanie Lindsell opened the box and carefully removed a female great horned owl, who immediately spread her wings and flew away, staying low to the ground and perching about 100 meters away to survey her surroundings at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge.
The owl, given the designation 20-964 rather than a name, eventually made its way to the nearby heavily forested Bosque along the Rio Grande.
Tuesday’s flight was short, but the journey there took two years.
The injured owl was reported to the nonprofit Hawks Aloft, which recovered the bird along Interstate 25 south of Albuquerque in November 2020 and subsequently turned it over to the Española-based Wildlife Center. The owl was apparently struck by a vehicle — possibly while feeding on rodents or other prey attracted to discarded food thrown from a vehicle, said Lindsell, wildlife rehabilitation manager at the New Mexico Wildlife Center.
“Our vet found some scars in her eyes and her feathers were in really, really bad shape – very brittle and broken – all suggesting that she probably had a previous infection, most likely West Nile Virus,” she said .
While broken wing bones usually heal well, the condition of the bird’s feathers made recovery difficult. The normal treatment is to take donor feathers lost during molting from another great horned owl, trim them, and insert the shaft portion of the feather into the recipient bird’s remaining hollow feather shaft.
“But we can only do that if the recipient’s pen shaft is healthy,” Lindsell said. In this case, the bird’s feathers were split, torn, and frayed. “We had to wait for her to molt naturally, and great horned owls have a two-year moult cycle, so all we could do was wait.”
The poor condition of her feathers also meant her ability to fly was severely limited, particularly her ability to fly silently when swooping down to capture prey.
As the female owl recovered, she was placed in larger and larger flight enclosures — from 20 feet in length to 50 feet and finally 100 feet — and she successfully passed “prey school,” which tested the bird’s hunting skills, Lindsell said. “So she’s very ready to go.”
While great horned owls are distributed throughout North America and are not an endangered species, they have a high first-year mortality rate, as do many bird species.
Birds of prey in particular have a tough time, as inexperienced members often hunt near roads, where they are killed or injured by passing vehicles. Additionally, rodents and rabbits, which are among their main food sources, are often contaminated with rodenticides that are transmitted to the owls that hunt them, said Laura Siegel, also a rehabilitator with the New Mexico Wildlife Center and the organization’s owl expert.
In the wild, great horned owls generally live 10 to 12 years, she said. In human care, they can live well into their 20s and 30s, with the record for the longest living member being 50 years.
They are nocturnal creatures and are particularly active hunters at dawn and dusk. They have excellent night vision and even better hearing, which they use to locate and catch prey, Siegel said. Although their eyes don’t move in their sockets, they can rotate their heads 270 degrees.
Great horned owls have an average weight of 2½ to 3½ pounds and an average wingspan of 3½ to 4½ feet. The females of the species are generally larger than the males.
“The colors and patterns of their feathers provide really good camouflage against trees and other natural landscapes,” Siegel said. “They are one of the most adaptable animal species.”