Ready for wind under his wings

Great Horned owl on ledge in Raptor Facility before it is released.

A piece of trash stuck on a barbed wire fence caught Bob Stuekle’s eye on an August harvest morning as he made his way to his combine off Clear Creek Road near Colfax.

“I thought it was a plastic bag,” Stueckle said. “Then we drove over and found the bird caught and hanging on the fence.”

Tangled up in barbed wire and attempting to free himself, the adult male Great-horned owl suffered a significant tear to his wing. Without care, and certainly without removal from the barbed wire, the predator would have died and become prey.

That wasn’t something Stueckle wanted to see.

“It wasn’t like we were pressed for time that morning,” he said. “I wasn’t just going to let him sit and dangle there.”

Stueckle and his farmhands called across the Palouse to find someone who could take the owl.

It wasn’t long before they were cutting the bird out of the fence and driving it to the only wildlife rehabilitators in Whitman County – veterinarians at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Marcie Logsdon was hopeful her team could put the owl back in the air, but to repair the wing it would be a long road to recovery.

The wing had a hole in it and required surgery.

“I was optimistic,” said Logsdon. “One thing you look for in these cases is an important tendon in the wing – the patagial tendon – if that is broken then the prognosis is poor.”

The tendon was intact, but the trauma was extensive; even after surgery, the wing required time to grow the tissue back over the wound.

There was also trauma to the rest of his body from the barbed wire, including a deep gash on his leg that required suturing.

Several times a week for 3 months, wildlife intern Dr. Ian Cossman, who led the case, performed physical rehabilitation on the owl’s wing. Cossman also provided much of the wound care during the bird’s stay.

“He really deserves the credit for this case,” Logsdon said.

It had been a few months and Stueckle had wondered about the bird, so he called about it.

“They said they would call back. I didn’t think they would, anymore that seems like a rarity,” he said. “I kind of gave up on it, and then about two months ago they gave us a call back and said they would like to release the bird in the neighborhood where they found it.”

That “neighborhood” was Stueckle’s home.

“It was just about dark. We were hoping he would land in the tree but he didn’t stick around, he took off and left and we barely saw him. I have no idea where he went or where he is now,” Stueckle said. 

Logsdon said it is always rewarding when a Good Samaritan can take part in a release.

“It shows the end result of their efforts,” she said. “We helped save this guy, but the bird would not be alive without them bringing him to us.