Baby barn owls in the Columbia Basin are in trouble as a growing number of the critters are turning up displaced or orphaned because their parents are nesting in haystacks.
"Barn owls are cavity nesters and used to being around people, and that causes a problem," said Lynn Tompkins, director of Blue Mountain Wildlife in Pendleton. "The majority of baby barn owls we care for come from haystacks that farmers need to move because the hay is sold. And that leaves many of the baby owls homeless."
And saving those chicks is not cheap. Last year, it cost the rehabilitation center $24,000 to feed 80,000 mice to 400 homeless barn owl chicks.
To help pay for the feedings, the agency will hold its annual Barn Owl Boot Camp fundraiser from 1 to 3 p.m. April 21 at the Richland Community Center, next to Howard Amon Park.
Tompkins works closely with Benton City wildlife volunteers Michele Caron and Laurel McKeehan to save as many owls as possible.
"We are encouraging farmers to put up nest boxes near where the hay is stacked," Tompkins said. "Then the baby owls can be put in those if the stack containing their nests needs to be moved, and the parents can continue to raise their young."
It's a slow process, she added, but the agency found a helper in Francisco W. Zurita, 34, who lives in Kennewick and works for a Columbia Basin hay growing company.
The first time he saw abandoned eggs, he couldn't save them. But the next time he tossed back a tarp covering a haystack, he found barn owl chicks.
"They were crying, and it was so cold, and I didn't know what to do with them," Zurita said. "I didn't want them to die."
Friends helped him contact Caron and McKeehan, who operate a barn owl sanctuary in Benton City for Blue Mountain Wildlife.
"Francisco has saved the lives of hundreds of baby barn owls the past few years," McKeehan said. "Whenever he finds them, he brings them to us."
Zurita said after he found those first eggs and then the chicks, he began paying more attention so that when he is preparing a haystack for removal, he checks first for babies.
"I love nature," he said. "It's important to me to help when I can because every life counts."
Anyone interested in helping Blue Mountain Wildlife save the young barn owls can visit its boot camp, mingle with some caged raptors and learn more about their plight, Tompkins said.
For a $55 donation, visitors receive a certificate of adoption, even though their adopted baby barn owl will remain in the wild under the care of either its parents or Blue Mountain Wildlife.
And those who donate any amount may receive a gift of either an origami owl or owl luggage tag. Attendees also will be entered into a drawing for a two-night stay at Sunriver Resort in Bend, Ore.
There is no admission fee.