Barn Owl Boot Camp in Richland aims to raise awareness of plight

Tri-City HeraldMay 9, 2014 

A barn owl screeching its head off is not exactly music to the ears.

And as babies, they're homely, with huge beaks for their size. They sway, hiss and howl like a windstorm when they feel threatened.

Still, they're little balls of fuzz that need a helping hand once in a while from humans.

Baby barn owls are frequently displaced because their moms build their nests in hay bales. When farmers move the hay, the nest is destroyed, the mom flies away and the babies are left homeless.

That's when the Blue Mountain Wildlife organization, based in Pendleton, steps in to help.

They have rescued hundreds of baby owls during the last few years, fed, housed and kept them healthy until they are old enough to be introduced back into the wild.

You can learn all about the plight of these owls at Saturday's Barn Owl Boot Camp from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Richland Community Center next to Howard Amon Park. Admission is free.

There won't be any baby barn owls at the event, but there will be some other live birds of prey for viewing.

"We'll have a great horned owl, an adult barn owl, Peregrine falcon, golden eagle and redtailed hawk that people will be able to see," said Michele Caron, a volunteer with Blue Mountain Wildlife.

"And we'll be releasing a red-tailed hawk back into the wild that was rescued two years ago after being burned," Caron said. "We had to wait until all his feathers grew back before we could turn him loose again."

Caron, from Benton City, is one of dozens of volunteers who help foster wildlife for the nonprofit organization. They have rescued as many as 427 baby barn owls in one year.

"That was an exceptionally large number in 2012," Caron said. "But it could have had something to do with farmers exporting their hay earlier than usual that year."

It costs about $60,000 a year in mice, at 40 cents each, to feed the baby owls.

Caron is fostering more than a dozen barn owl babies from 1 week old to 6 weeks old.

At 1 week, the little critters' eyes are not open yet.

They look like miniature pterodactyls that fit in the palm of your hand, and their bodies are covered with a smattering of white fuzz.

A few weeks later the fuzz covers a bit more of their bodies and feathers are starting to show. At 6 weeks they're fully clothed in a white fuzzy coat and feathers are more pronounced.

The average weight at hatching is about 17 grams, Caron said. Their eyes open in about seven to 10 days. At 1 month old they weigh an average of 250 grams. They are fully grown at about 10 weeks with a distinctive white heart-shaped face, buff-colored upper parts and silver/grey and white under parts.

Caron uses scissors to cut mice into minute pieces and hand feeds the tiniest owls. The older ones still need their mice cut up, but the pieces are a little larger and the owls can eat on their own. They are put back into the wild once they learn to hunt for their own food.

"We feed them together so they will fight for their food," Caron said. "It helps them learn to hunt on their own."

Caron's 25 acres near Benton City has about 20 hack boxes built around the property, where 34 other barn owl babies are cared for by three surrogate owl moms.

"Two-thirds of the barn owls that become homeless come from the Tri-City area," Caron said. "And half the donations that come to Blue Mountain Wildlife come from Washington state. And believe it or not, it's sometimes difficult to get people to donate money for (dead) mice."

Today's event in Richland is Blue Mountain Wildlife's annual fundraiser.

Though there is no cost to attend, visitors can purchase a ticket for $20 for a chance to win $1,500 worth of cool stuff, including gift cards, tickets to the Pendleton Round-Up, a falconry hunting trip with a master falconer, and an assortment of wine.

More information about Blue Mountain Wildlife can be found at www.bluemountainwildlife.org.

-- Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; doneal@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @dorioneal

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