Ornitho-logic

The Men Who Save Baby Owls

When a nestling tumbles to earth, these guys are there to help.

"Last night I was getting swooped," says Michael Minardi. By that he means a full-grown owl nearly collided with him when he was trying to return a chick to its nest. Minardi is a volunteer “renester” at the Four Lakes Wildlife Center at the Dane County Humane Society in Wisconsin, so he spends weekends and evenings climbing trees to return baby owls that have fallen out of their nests—as he recently did with an owl in the yard of Wisconsin State Journal writer Beth Williams.

Contrary to common belief, handling a baby bird won’t cause the parents to abandon it. In fact, they’ll be as caring—and protective—as ever. If Minardi or fellow renesting volunteer John Kraak get too close to a nest, the parents get angry.

"When adults fly at you—that's when you really become a tree hugger," jokes Kraak. “They see us as predators.”

Kraak and Minardi are willing to risk the angry parents because, in the long run, it’s better for the birds. “Everyone’s realizing more and more the importance of [baby birds] being raised by their parents,” says Brooke Lewis, who supervises the wildlife rehabilitation program at the Four Lakes center. Birds learn crucial skills from their parents, including foraging, predator avoidance, and their species’ song.

Despite the swooping owls, neither Kraak nor Minardi has ever sustained an actual injury in their risky line of work. But then, they’re professionals—or rather, trained volunteers, with years of experience climbing trees and handling juvenile raptors.

It’s not as if Minardi and Kraak spend their days scanning the woods, looking for lost owls. In fact, most of their cases come in through the Four Lakes center’s hotline, which asks callers to text in a picture of the imperiled baby animal. Wildlife professionals can tell if a bird is stunned, injured, or just lost, and then take the appropriate course of action. If the bird is injured, they bring it to the center for medical care. “We probably still end up keeping more,” says Lewis.

If the bird appears to be both young and in good health, Minardi and Kraak go to the scene and check in with the property owners. They gather intel on the status of the nest—it’s important that the parents are still around to take care of the bird when it’s back in its home.

Next they get their climbing gear together. Minardi, a certified arborist, joined the renesting efforts last year. Before then, Kraak used to free-climb. But it’s easier—and far safer—when you have a system in place: Great Horned Owls, for example, can nest tens of feet off the ground.

Before the trip up the tree, the volunteers feed the misplaced bird a snack—which, for a baby owl means a mouse or a piece of a rescued bunny or squirrel that didn’t make it. Then they put it in a plastic bucket with holes in the lid, which they call the MPJ High-Tech Renesting Device. That’s Mike Patrick John—their names, plus the name of the renester who trained John eight years ago. On the side of the bucket, written in marker, is a list of every animal they’ve renested, including hawks, finches, and squirrels.

Once they reach the nest, they assess its condition. Owls are not clumsy; there’s a reason they fall out of nests in the first place. Mom and dad owls frequently take over abandoned nests rather than building their own, and the construction can be subpar. In that case, Minardi and Kraak put in a basket filled with soft material like pine boughs before returning the baby owl. (They’ll also transfer any siblings to the new digs.) This is required “more than half the time,” Minardi says.

At times the fallen birds are old enough to be left alone. A ground-bound fledgling, for example, often just needs a little time to learn to fly. The bottom line is this: If you don’t need to mess with a bird, don’t—and definitely don’t try to treat it as a pet or companion. If you come across a baby owl (or a similarly distressed baby bird), contact a local wildlife rehabber. 

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