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The Incredible Story of a Great Horned Owl's Death-Defying Road Trip

After enduring 300 miles in a truck grille and a car wash, the owl suffered major injuries. But with some help, the tough bird pulled through.

As far as the veterinary staff knew, the badly injured Great Horned Owl dropped off at PAWS Wildlife Center, located outside of Seattle, had been extracted from the front grille of a truck that November morning, after being struck the previous day. The intake exam showed a broken wing twisted back around the fracture and a damaged left eye that was fixed and dilated.

With both its flight and sight compromised, the prognosis was not great, said Dr. Nicki Rosenhagen, one of the clinic’s wildlife vets. PAWS, which treats about 4,000 wild animals a year, slightly more than half of them birds, won’t release one back to the wild unless it can successfully survive. To do that, Rosenhagen said, it must be able to both hunt and reproduce.

But in the owl’s favor, she said, it was alert and feisty despite its injuries, clacking and mantling its mottled feathers when she or another member of the veterinary team approached.

Two days later, the owl was under anesthesia so the vets could insert a vertical pin through its broken humerus and three horizontal pins to anchor the first. They also applied stretchy bandaging to immobilize the wing.

It was only as the owl began its recovery that its true ordeal emerged.

Naomi Summer, an administrative assistant at an office in a nearby suburb, had arranged for the owl’s transport to PAWS. She learned the whole story from the driver of the truck, whom she worked with. (The driver asked to not be identified for this story.) He’d been heading back from Idaho in his Ford F-150 pickup and was going about 70 miles per hour near Walla Walla, in southeast Washington, when his headlights illuminated a large bird dropping onto the highway in front of him. Before he had a chance to react, he heard a sickening thump and was certain he’d just killed a raptor. He drove another 290 miles home, parked the truck in his driveway on a freezing night, and went to bed.

The next morning, Summer said, the man drove through a car wash on the way to work—the $15 deluxe car wash with frontal sprays, whirling brushes, and concussive winds.

Owliver in rehab. Photo: PAWS Wildlife Center

It wasn’t until the driver pulled into his office parking lot that he noticed that his front license plate was bent. Peering more closely, he could just make out a feathered body wedged in front of the radiator. After debating how to extricate the body, another co-worker donned thick gloves and was reaching in when the owl opened an eye and swiveled its head.

“That thing’s still alive,” the co-worker announced. He removed the owl and placed it on a grassy parking strip while Summer started calling wildlife rescue centers and leaving messages.  While she waited for a response, she regularly checked on the owl, which was still sitting in the grass. 

“It was in pain," she said. "Its wing was crumpled. It was cold and rainy. We really didn’t expect it to survive."

After some coordinating by Summer, the bird ended up at PAWS. The clinic doesn’t give its patients nicknames; it tries to minimize human contact and ensure the wild creatures remain wild. But Summer dubbed the bird “Owliver” and called PAWS every few days for an update. She said the first reports were that it hadn’t died, that it had started eating immediately, and that it had had successful surgery on its broken wing.

She, in turn, relayed the owl’s complete backstory to the center staff, where amazement at the owl’s survival only grew.

“After hearing everything it had gone through, everyone on the staff was pulling for it,” said Jeff Brown, PAWS' wildlife naturalist. “It became the talk of the center. It was like: Whoa! It could survive all that?”

Owliver in the flight pen almost ready for release. Photo: PAWS Wildlife Center

Once the pins were removed from the owl’s wing, staff reassessed the damaged eye. Big yellow eyes, along with feathered tufts, or horns, are the species' most distinctive features. A tear in the back of the retina and blood in the iris were starting to resolve.

Placed in a series of larger and larger enclosures, the owl regained strength and lift in its wing. It also passed several live-prey tests designed to evaluate its improving eyesight and its ability to hunt by sound.

In late January, two-and-a-half months after the owl was struck, Brown and Rosenhagen retraced its journey, back over the snowy Cascade mountains, through the Yakima Valley, toward the broad agricultural fields that surround the Touchet River. The two kept their conversation low and the heat turned off to keep the owl acclimated to the cold.

Between wheat fields and the river, in what Brown described as “beautiful raptor habitat,” they released Owliver from a large carrier. Brown said the owl hopped out, took a moment to get its bearings, and flew up to a big tree nearby. A flock of geese flushed from the river. The owl looked back at its guardians on the bank, up at the geese, and flew off up the river.

 “It was so wonderful to see it back in its habitat, its home,” Rosenhagen said. “They pull through terrible circumstances. They heal.”

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