For the Birds Radio Program: Dead Owls

Original Air Date: Jan. 13, 1997

Laura’s freezer is filling up with owls succumbing to the harsh winter. They’ll be necropsied and then salvaged for education; they’re already educating Laura about their hard lives. (3:54)

Audio missing


I just got a phone call from a neighbor a couple of doors down, telling me about a dead owl she’d found in her yard. I went over and picked up the Barred Owl, who’d apparently frozen to death Christmas night. It went into my freezer to join the two dead Boreal Owls already there-­ one of those died in my neighborhood, the other in a backyard just below London Road, both within a couple of days of the Barred Owl. The three will be sent down to the Twin Cities to be necropsied and then used for education.

I hate having owls in my freezer. My family is used to making sure nobody thaws one out for dinner by mistake–that’s not a problem. I just hate the thought of these mysterious and wonderful birds freezing to death, or dying of starvation or disease. ft seems such a tragic waste.

Owls are wonderfully adaptable predators, designed for winter survival with dense, furry feathers all the way down their talons and soft, thick plumage for insulation, a magnificent sense of hearing that enables them to detect a mouse scrambling beneath deep snow, nocturnal vision which allows them to hunt during those long winter nights–you’d think they could make it through the season without problem. But in reality, they spend most of the season on the very edge of life and death. I’ve held many owls, and am always amazed at how light and insubstantial they feel, considering how very much spirit and presence they have. When they are starving, their weight dwindles to virtually nothing. Great Gray Owls have been successfully rehabilitated that weighed only 3/4 of a pound–imagine that!

This has been a harsh winter so far, but not much worse than usual. The problem for owls is that last winter was so terrible for them that they haven’t recovered enough to cope easily this year.

If you find a starving owl, get it to a rehab facility as quickly as possible. No matter what species it is, be very careful of the talons, and if it’s a Great Horned Owl, you better ask the rehabber to come get it–Great Horneds are unpredictable and fierce, and can leave permanent scars or worse. If you can’t get the owl to a facility immediately, dribble some pedialyte or gatorade into its beak or, if you can’t get either, boil and then cool some cola. Once it’s taken some fluids, give it Gerber strained chicken, turkey, or beef–these have been partly predigested, easy for a starving bird to absorb the nutrients. Once the digestive system has kicked in again and the bird is producing fairly normal droppings, the diet must be changed to mice or birds, but those are worthless at first.

Folklore has always linked owls with death. Ancient Romans, who were very superstitious, thought the sighting of an owl always foretold a death. Some Native Americans thought large owls carried the spirits of the dying off to the heavens. After last winter, I too connect owls with death, but now I’m afraid whenever I see an owl that it is the owl who’s going to die. When an owl sees a human, it has a much higher probability of dying than the reverse–maybe it is we humans who are the bad omens.