Crack, crack, crack! Nora the eastern screech owl snaps her short, yellow beak, threatening her caretaker. But Suzanne Shoemaker doesn’t scare easily. With a gentle grip, her gloved hands hold the injured, feathery raptor that is about the size of a grapefruit. Shoemaker feeds her a bite-size morsel of a defrosted mouse. Nora gulps down the small pink chunk, then another. She starts snapping again when presented with the tail. She’s had enough.
The meal finished, Shoemaker returns Nora, who has an injured wing, to a dark, quiet crate. Without a peep, four other eastern screech owl patients wait nearby in their covered cages. She repeats the meal until all five birds have been fed. Soon Shoemaker won’t have to feed them by hand.
A raptor specialist and licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Shoemaker cares for injured raptors, or birds of prey, such as eagles, hawks, falcons and owls, at Owl Moon Raptor Center in Boyds. Just before Christmas, the first of the five screech owls arrived after someone found it with a broken wing on the patio of a restaurant in Rockville. Shoemaker named the owl Dora.
“Getting five screech owls within the span of nine days is a fluke,” Shoemaker says. She thinks that maybe 2013 was a good breeding year for screech owls and that the population has spiked. These five were probably all hit by cars.
The day after Dora appeared, Diego transferred in from Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg with an eye injury. The next day, December 23, Pepe Le Pew arrived, also with an eye injury and smelling as if he had tangled with a skunk. Nora arrived on the 27th with a damaged nerve in her left wing. On December 28, the screech owls were briefly joined in their quiet refuge by an injured bald eagle that Shoemaker rescued from a yard in Montgomery County. The fifth screech owl, Angora, arrived December 29 with a concussion, or brain trauma.
Shoemaker’s goal is to nurse them back to health and prepare them for release into the wild, if possible. Their prospects are “fair to good,” she says.
Shoemaker cares for each patient differently, depending on its condition, with help from veterinarians and other wildlife specialists.
She examines the patients, stabilizes them (this could include giving fluids for dehydration, wrapping an injured wing or giving medicine to help with pain, infection or swelling) and creates treatment plans to get the birds fit and ready to hunt and survive in the wild.
Once a bird’s condition improves, but before it is released, she provides exercise and tests a bird’s ability to fly while it is attached to a long, light cord. This process is called “creance flying.”
The best part of rehabilitation, she says, is getting to know each raptor as an individual.
“If you know one screech owl, that doesn’t mean you know them all,” she says. Nora is the feistiest. Diego and Pepe are more mild-mannered.
“They all fight a little bit,” she says, “because they don’t want to be handled and they definitely want to get out of here.”
But that’s a good thing — they’re wild animals, after all. After they’ve been in her care for a while, Shoemaker says the owls don’t threaten with their beaks or talons (those are claws) quite as much. They seem to understand she’s not going to eat them.
Beaks and talons are adaptations (characteristics that help a species survive) that raptors use to hunt and protect themselves.
“Adaptations show us that everything has its place,” Shoemaker says.
Owls’ soft, flexible feathers give them “silent flight” so they can sneak up on prey. Some owls have asymmetrical ears, meaning that one is higher on the head than the other. This enables them to hear up and down as well as left and right, so they can hunt better in the dark.
“To me it’s amazing how each animal is adapted to its lifestyle,” Shoemaker says. “It’s what makes each one special and why we need to take care of them.”
By the time below-freezing temperatures descend on the D.C. area on Tuesday, Dora, Diego, Nora and Angora are feeding themselves. Angora is ready for release, but Shoemaker opts to have him wait out the severe cold in the warm comfort of her basement. At dusk on Thursday, Shoemaker drives the owl to Manchester, Maryland, to a wooded spot not far from where he was found. It’s not quite as cold as it has been. Instead of restraining him, this time her gloved hands lift him into the air and let go. He flutters into the darkness and disappears, home again.
Suzanne Shoemaker is an expert in animal behavior, ecology and the adaptations of animals to their natural environment. Twelve years ago, she started Owl Moon Raptor Center at her home in Boyds, Maryland. She rescues and rehabilitates birds of prey, with the goal of returning them to the wild and helping to educate the public along the way. For more information about Owl Moon or to make a donation, visit www.owlmoon.org. (Always ask a parent before going online.)
These adorable and important raptors:
●have large yellow eyes that take up more space in their skulls than their brains.
●stand about eight inches tall (a bit taller than an unsharpened pencil would stand).
●don’t build their own nests. Instead they live in tree cavities, such as old woodpecker holes.
●get their name from the screechy sound they make. They also whinny like a horse, bark, hoot and make chuckling noises; juveniles beg for food with a rasping noise.
We share our neighborhoods with small predators such as screech owls. At dusk, they hunt insects, small birds and rodents. You might find one by:
●searching, with a parent, in late winter or early spring. Go out at night with a flashlight, and look up in parks or other areas with tall trees. Listen! You’re more likely to hear a screech owl than to see one.
If you find an injured owl or other wild animal, contact a wildlife rehabilitator. Help can be found at City Wildlife in Washington (202-882-1000 or www.citywildlife.org), Northern Virginia’s Wildlife Rescue League (703-440-0800 or www.wildliferescueleague.org/hotline_info) and the Maryland Wildlife Rehabilitators Association’s directory (www.mwra.org/pages/referral-directory.php).