Many readers will remember the Barn Owl I had to cut out of barbed wire last summer in Montana. At the time I only had a small, cheap and dull pair of wire cutters with me and the effort required to cut the thick double-stranded wire strained tendons in my arm that took several weeks to heal. So I invested in a pair of new, heavy-duty cutters to carry in my pickup in case I ever came across a similar situation again. It’s a darn good thing I did.
Caution: some of these images may be disturbing to some viewers.
Yesterday morning Mia and I were cruising the back roads of northern Utah looking for birds to photograph when we passed this adult Short-eared Owl on our left. It was perched on the wrong side of the road for good light but Mia looked back again and noticed something very disturbing so I backed up to investigate.
The adult was there for a reason.
Perhaps 10′ in front of the adult was one of its recent fledglings entangled in a barbed wire fence. The adult didn’t fly off until I was very close to both birds which tells me of its concern for the juvenile. I fired off a couple of shots of both birds from my pickup and then just sat there for a moment as we tried to figure out our strategy in rescuing the youngster. If you make a mistake in these situations you might live to regret it if you care anything at all about birds.
This shot shows what an obstacle course barbed wire fences present to these young birds as they’re learning to fly, often in the semi-darkness. There are five strands of wire on the fence and those deadly barbs are very close to each other. The barbed wire I remember in Montana years ago had significantly fewer barbs and it only takes one of them to snag a bird or other wildlife.
This view from a different angle shows how seriously the wing was mangled.
Cutting fence in cattle country is serious business so I was determined to avoid cutting it if at all possible. I spent almost 15 minutes trying to get the owl off the wire but the wing was already badly damaged and it was wrapped around the wire in such a way that I simply could not extract the owl without further mangling the wing. A comment made by friend and wildlife rehabilitator April Olson on the post I made about the Barn Owl entangled in wire in Montana kept coming to mind as I was struggling to make my decision. In that comment she said:
- “Thank you for cutting the wire. We received a beautiful young great horned owl that had been tangled in a barbed wire fence, but the farmer didn’t want to cut the wire. Instead he cut the owls wing tendon that was wrapped around the wire. Unfortunately we could not repair the damage and the owl could not be saved.”
So in the end, with great reluctance, I cut the wire and as the tension in the wire was released the owl was freed instantly with no further damage to the wing. The owl was alert, bright-eyed and even cooperative as we wrapped it in a towel and began the long drive for help.
But I took a few minutes to stop at the nearest ranch house to report the cut fence wire and while there I talked to two gentlemen who lived nearby. The first fellow was friendly, gregarious and seemed to understand the situation from my point of view. The second gentleman – not so much. He was obviously unhappy that I had cut the wire for an owl. But it turns out that neither of those gentlemen owned the fence so I gave them both my card with contact information and asked them to inform the owner of the fence what I’d done and why and to tell the owner that I would pay reasonable repair costs for the cut wire. They agreed to do so.
As I made the long drive out of the area Mia and I tried to figure out our next step. The best option was to drop the owl off at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden but they weren’t answering their phone, perhaps because it was Sunday and Father’s Day morning. So as I drove, Mia called our good friends Jerry Liguori and Mike Shaw of Hawkwatch International to try to figure out an alternative strategy. Both Jerry and Mike were incredibly helpful and in the end we drove the owl to HWI headquarters in Salt Lake City where we met Mike and handed the owl off to him. Mike then made arrangements to have the bird delivered to the Ogden rehab center. I’ve heard nothing since.
The owl was still in relatively good shape when we arrived at HWI to meet Mike – here Mia is holding it wrapped up in the towel as we’re parked in the parking lot. There’s a feather in front of its right eye that makes it look a little strange but neither eye was damaged. I don’t think Mia will ever forget that 90 minute ride with this beautiful little owl on her lap.
I’m enough of a realist to know that the odds are likely against the survival of this youngster. I won’t be surprised if there are both broken bones and soft tissue damage to the wing and those kinds of injuries are often untreatable but we had to give this bird every chance possible.
At this point I can only hope for two things – that the owl can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild and that the owner of that fence and I are in the same ball park if/when we try to agree on what “reasonable” fence repair costs are. Even though I’m not a fan of barbed wire, having grown up on a Montana farm I have a lot of empathy for the hard life of many farmers and ranchers and there’s no question that when I cut the fence I didn’t make life any easier for its owner.
But as far as I’m concerned I didn’t have an acceptable alternative.
Update: While I was taking an afternoon nap this email came in from Mike Shaw at Hawkwatch:
- “Just heard from DaLyn in Ogden: the owl made it through the night, ate all it’s food, and she’s optimistic it can be released. The wing was pretty beat up and needed stitches, but no broken bones.”
Dalyn is the director of WRCNU. I’m overjoyed. To be perfectly honest I was prepared for this little guy not to make it.
I’m so glad I decided to cut that wire!