For the Birds Radio Program: Archimedes, Part I
In the spring of 1999, some little children in Ohio, near Cleveland, found what looked like a dead bird in their yard. Well, they thought he was a bird, but they couldn’t be sure—he had no feathers at all. He was in the grass, and when they touched him, he didn’t move at all and felt very cold to the touch. So they got some toilet paper to throw him out, but when they picked him up could suddenly feel movement. So they got their mom and brought him to the nearest rehab center. The little bird was extremely weak, and looked a total mess. Half his body was covered in oozing scabs from being scraped as he lie on his side at the floor of the nest cavity. The other half was covered in dozens of tiny paired puncture wounds. Apparently while he was still on the nest floor, his brothers and sisters used him as a booster seat to reach closer to the bright hole where their parents came in and out with food. They probably didn’t even realize they were sitting on their little brother—they just wanted to be as close to that hole as possible. The wounds needed antibiotic salves, but they clearly weren’t the primary problem. Mona Rutgers, the rehabber, took a blood sample and discovered what had made the little bird—an Eastern Screech-Owl—get sick in the first place. Parasites had entered his bloodstream, probably from a fly bite, and were pretty much eating away at him from the inside. Fortunately, the parasites were easy to treat with intravenous medication. Under intensive care, the little guy got strong and well. But he had looked into Mona Rutgers’s face, and the faces of her assistants, and learned that humans help when a little owl is in trouble or even just lonely. Human faces are rather flat with forward facing eyes, just like owl faces, and sure enough this little bird imprinted. Normally to avoid this rehabbers don’t feed baby owls—they leave that to their education owls, who make shockingly good foster parents. But this baby was too weak to beg, so needed to be fed by tube and then with a syringe for a couple of weeks before it could handle even tiny chunks of mouse. Within a couple of months, the little owl had grown strong and healthy, with perfect feathers and strong wings and talons. So they marked his left wing with green food coloring and put him in their huge outdoor enclosure, where mice were released every night. Every morning they netted as many owls as they could and weighed them, and he quickly gained weight, so they knew he was a good hunter. So one fine day they brought him to a lovely forest that was appropriate habitat for a screech owl, and set him free. And everything was fine for a few days, until a family took a walk in the woods. And a little owl flew out of the trees and landed on the dad’s head. One of his wings was colored green, and the family knew that was odd, to say nothing of his flying out of a tree to land on them in the first place, so they brought him to the area rehab clinic, where the staff immediately recognized him. He was heavier than when they released him, so they knew he was hunting fine. But after they fledge from their nest, screech owls spend a month or two with their family—this guy was probably a little lonely. So they had to teach him to be scared of people. Since they knew he was hunting fine, they didn’t need to net and weigh him anymore, so now whenever someone entered the enclosure, if he didn’t instantly fly away and hide, they shot him with a super soaker. Within days no one could get anywhere near him, so again they brought him to a wild area and released him. And again, within days he landed on people walking in the woods, and ended up back at the rehab center. He had learned his lesson well—be very afraid of people, if they’re holding a super soaker. So he was not legally releasable, since owls that are too friendly get into all kinds of trouble and could even cause someone to get a heart attack. I gave a talk near Cleveland the next spring, and happened to have state and federal licenses allowing me to keep one education owl. And that’s how it came to be that he was transferred to me. I named him Archimedes, and he’s been my companion and teaching assistant ever since. But this April, Archimedes was again in trouble—a pellet got stuck in his esophagus. Tomorrow I’ll tell what happened, and how a Duluth vet and rehabber saved his life again.