This Owl Had an Extraordinary Survival Story After a Very Bad Day

owl survival story

Story at-a-glance -

  • Great horned owls are tough, nocturnal creatures that often hunt at night or at dusk, which is when one swooped down in front of a truck and became pinned in the truck’s grill for a 300-mile trip
  • Still alive enough to turn his head and blink his one uninjured eye, the owl, dubbed Owliver, was taken to a PAWS wildlife clinic, where he underwent some intensive work and several weeks of care
  • Sometimes called “tiger owls,” great horned owls usually prefer to live and nest in lonely areas with tall trees, often near streams, but they can also be found in swamp areas and deserts
  • They kill and eat mammals and birds that are sometimes larger than they are and are the only animal that makes a habit of eating skunks, as well as rabbits, mice, squirrels, groundhogs, bats, opossums, weasels and geese
  • Great horned owls are in decline, and only in the easternmost Midwestern states are owl devotees allowed to build nesting boxes on public properties to entice them to live. If you own private property, putting up a nest box is a great way to encourage owls to choose your space as their home

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Owls are fascinating creatures. One of the most common and most treasured is the great horned owl, with its powerful talons and eerie, wide-eyed stare. Being nocturnal creatures, they’re not a common sight, but they are active enough to be visible, especially with their wingspan pushing 5 feet. That was what the driver saw just before the owl swooped right into the path of his Ford F-150 pickup truck traveling 70 mph.

With a sinking heart, the driver was sure he’d killed what must have been a raptor, so he continued driving another 300-odd miles home from Idaho to southeast Washington and parked in his driveway, not realizing the bird was stuck in his truck grill and seriously injured. The driver (who chose not to be identified in news articles) still wasn’t aware of the owl’s presence throughout a freezing cold night — and the following morning, a harrowing trip through the deluxe version of a car wash before the driver headed to work.

Once he was at work, and noticing his front license plate was bent, the driver peered through the grill and discovered a large bird wedged near the radiator. One of the driver’s coworkers slid on thick gloves to try extricating it. That’s when its head swiveled and one eye opened. In obvious pain due to a crumpled, twisted wing, the owl was placed on the grass and the driver started calling area rescue centers.

After a few more concerned individuals got involved, the owl ended up at PAWS, a wildlife clinic that treats about 4,000 wild animals every year, just over half of them birds. The organizations policy requires that rehabilitated animals be able to both hunt and reproduce for them to be released back into the wild. Audubon picks up the story:

“The intake exam showed a broken wing twisted back around the fracture and a damaged left eye that was fixed and dilated … But in the owl’s favor, it was alert and feisty despite its injuries, clacking and mantling its mottled feathers when … [a] member of the veterinary team approached.”1

But with both his sight and flight capabilities in serious jeopardy, plus his injuries, which included a hemorrhage, no doubt due to the truck’s impact, the veterinarians at PAWS didn’t think he would even survive.

‘Owliver’ Takes a Different Road — To Recovery

Great horned owls are pretty tough birds. That was certainly true from the standpoint of another of the driver’s intensely interested colleagues, Naomi Summer, who not only contacted PAWS but dubbed the bird “Owliver.” At the clinic, however, the bird was given another moniker: 2017-4242. Summer called the clinic for updates every few days and learned that the spirited raptor had started eating immediately and within a few days, had undergone a successful surgery on his broken wing.

Owliver was given anesthesia so the veterinarians could place a pin vertically in his main leg bone, the femur, anchored by three horizontal pins to keep it firmly in place. Stretchy bandages held his wing tightly for a month so it could heal properly. His damaged eye was next on the agenda. The doctors were glad to report that the bird’s incredibly powerful eyesight, able to detect a rodent half a mile away, was recovering from a tear on the back of its retina, and The Washington Post reported:

“The owl’s humerus was still viable, the nerves were still intact and the circulation good. After the wing had healed sufficiently, the bird underwent physical therapy, which for owls involves sedation, massage and stretching. It was moved to enclosures where it could practice flying and, eventually hunting live mice. Predictably, the owl won.”2

Jennifer Convy, director of the organization’s Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, Washington, said most birds don’t survive such trauma, but because Owliver made it to the rehab center relatively quickly, he got the help he needed in time. Thoughtful rehabilitation included placing him in successively larger cages so he wouldn’t get too used to being in an enclosed area. Live prey tests were conducted to assess how well he would be able to survive on his own in the wild.

Two-and-a-half months after going through his harrowing experience, PAWS' wildlife naturalist Jeff Brown and Nicki Rosenhagen, a PAWS wildlife vet, placed Owliver in the car and drove him back to his home territory over the Cascades, keeping the heat off in the vehicle so the bird could remain acclimated to the cold. Released after his long journey, the bird flew out toward a leafless tree and landed on it just as a flock of geese flew overhead and honked as if in approval.

What Is It About Owls That Makes Them so Fascinating?

All About Birds says great horned owls, the heaviest of all the owls in the North and South American continents, will eat anything. In fact, bird cams captured the raptors attacking a great blue heron nest in the middle of the night. It may be the birds’ ferocity that makes them so fascinating, although most times when they’re sighted, they’re sitting still. The website notes:

“Renowned for their ferocity, Great Horned Owls kill and eat small to medium sized mammals and birds. They are the only animal that regularly eats skunks; they also eat rabbits, mice, rats, squirrels, opossums, groundhogs, bats, weasels, and the occasional cat. They also eat many kinds of birds, from small songbirds up to geese and raptors.”3

Sometimes called a “tiger owl,” great horned owls usually prefer to live and nest in lonely areas with tall trees, often near streams, but they can also be found in swamp areas and deserts.

As noted earlier, they like hunting when it’s dark to add to their excellent hearing and quiet overhead stealth. One of the most fascinating modus operandi of these raptors is the way they can spot a critter from the air and are able to swoop down and capture it with their long claws. Here are several interesting facts about great horned owls, according to Audubon.com:

  • During breeding season, they avoid unbroken grassland, requiring trees or heavy foliage for cover, usually 20 to 60 feet above ground, which may be provided by a cliff ledge, a cave or even a broken-off tree stump. They also use no other nesting material than feathers.
  • Experts believe they often begin nesting very early in northern areas so their young will have time to learn hunting skills before the next winter begins.
  • Both male and female great horned owls take care of their young owlets, providing food and watching over them as they begin leaving the nest and climbing nearby branches, which they can do at 5 months, and begin flying by 9 or 10 weeks old.
  • In northern climates, they’re known to sometimes store uneaten prey, returning later to thaw out the frozen carcass by "incubating" it.
  • When a great horned owl opens his talons to catch prey, 28 pounds of force is required. It’s this “death grip” that allows them to sever the spines of large prey.

If you’ve seen great horned owls in your area and would like them to stay, you can build a nesting box. However, this species is currently in decline, according to Nest Watch,4 so you can only put up a nesting box on public property if you live in Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana or Ohio. In addition, it needs to be constructed well before breeding season. I encourage every owl lover on private property in appropriate areas to consider constructing a nest box.

Sadly, among all the owls in North America, one of the newest and gravest threats besides vehicles is eating rat poison on marijuana farms in California. The owls eat rats and mice, which may threaten the crop, then succumb to the toxins of the anticoagulant rodenticides.