For the Birds Radio Program: Puck Flies the Coop
Laura’s little screech owl staged a getaway.
One of the saddest, scariest, and most frustrating events of my life happened just last week, when my little owl Puck flew the coop. The little screech owl had been injured some time last fall, and had been in a cage in the Milwaukee Humane Society ever since, until they transferred her to me. The transfer process had taken five months, since I had to wait for my federal and state permits to be approved. They finally came though the first of June, and I drove down to Milwaukee, picked her up, and had myself a lovely little bird to use for educational programs. Nice people at the Duluth zoo and Marge Gibson, a raptor rehabilitator from Wisconsin, gave me lots of assistance getting started, since I’d never had total responsibility for an owl before, and it was a delightful experience. Puck was nervous at first, but we were getting along very well. She had the run of my office, with strategically placed paper towels and newspapers beneath her favorite perches, and she also liked to perch on my finger. I gently preened her forehead the way owls do to their family members. It’s a literally touching way that owls cement their bonds.
Last week I brought her to the Elderhostel I taught at Camp du Nord near Ely, and she was wonderful as both a cabin mate and an education bird. I kept her loose in one of my cabin’s bedrooms, with lots of cloth and paper towels to protect the furnishings, and she seemed to enjoy looking out the window at all the animals around the camp, from mice and chipmunks to crows and ravens. This is an intergenerational Elderhostel, and both the grandparents and grandkids were thrilled to visit my cabin to see her close up. I didn’t have jesses for her, but she was very cooperative and perched on my finger so I could show her to visitors.
One of the camp activities was leather crafting, and one afternoon I decided to try my hand at making jesses so Puck could go outdoors with me. The pair I made turned out pretty well, so I put them on her. She struggled when I was putting them on, and angrily bit and tugged at one until she undid the knot. I decided I should show her the advantages to jesses in terms of increased freedom, by taking her outside with the one still on.
We went out and ran into a large group of family campers, who were fascinated with her. Puck was calm and cooperative for over half an hour. But I thought she was getting tired after all this attention, so we finally headed back to our cabin. My reaching to open the door made her shift her balance, and I turned my hand to give her a better grip right when a door slammed on one of the other cabins and she and I startled at the exact same moment. I loosened my grip on the jess just as she opened her wings, and off she went.
She landed in a nearby white pine, too high up to reach with even the tallest ladder in camp, and looked down on me with something of gratitude in her one eye. She didn’t seem defiant, just happy to be set free. Puck had been flying quite a bit, in very large rooms, since I had her, so her wings are in excellent shape, and even with her missing eye she negotiates obstacles and landings well. I kept track of her all afternoon and evening—any time she flew to a new tree, little birds alerted me to her location. I lost her at dusk, just as it was growing too dark to see, but some robins started squawking and I found her in the beam of a flashlight for one last glimpse. And then she flew off.
She had her bearings, her wings were strong, and she has as good or better of a chance of survival as any other one-eyed bird of prey. Banders occasionally capture healthy one-eyed hawks and owls that have been surviving well despite the injury, so Puck certainly has at least a chance out there. The sun’s low angle in the northern sky will look wrong to her, so over time she’ll wend her way south to where the sun looks right. If she survives the next few weeks, she has an excellent chance of long-term survival. But I feel sad and discouraged for letting my little owl literally slip through my fingers.