Team Bella vs Team Luna
By now everyone familiar with Peace River Wildlife Center knows about our leucistic eastern screech owl, Luna. He was admitted as a fledgling that had fallen or gotten pushed out of his nest at a mere 2-3 weeks of age. We initially raised him with other screech owl chicks, but the decision was made to keep him as a resident for his own safety and the glove-training process was started. His lack of normal colouration made him incapable of camouflage that is vital a defense mechanism against his predators.
Eastern screech owls are normally found with one of three colour variations called phases or morphs. They can be red, brown, or grey. The feathers are mottled with one of those colours and cream and black striations. The overall effect allows the bird to blend in with the bark of the tree branches where it is perching, hiding from predators and prey alike.
Our little Luna is leucistic, a genetic abnormality that caused the melanocytes, cells that produce colour, to be absent. Usually in an albino animal or bird, the melanocytes are still there; they just do not produce melanin, the black/brown pigment, but can still produce other colours, such as red, yellow or orange. Even more unusual for a leucistic animal, Luna does not have normally coloured eyes. A screech owl’s eyes are yellow. Luna’s eyes appear dark, but in bright sunlight the deep red of the underlying blood vessels can be seen through the colourless irises.
Now Luna has a “little” sister. Bella is a great horned owl that presented to PRWC after having been unintentionally imprinted by the people who rescued her as a fledgling. They tried to release her but after weeks in the wild, she kept flying down to people to be fed, and was eventually brought to PRWC. This type of sad situation is the primary reason why it is so important for wildlife to be handled and raised only by qualified rehabbers with state and federal permits and licenses. Bella was unable to care for herself in the wild. She did not know how to hunt or how to avoid predators. Many of these lessons can be taught to young birds and mammals as they are growing up or the natural instincts can be honed, but if handled improperly, the instincts are diminished and the bird or animal is not releasable.
For all of their obvious differences, Luna and Bella have many things in common. Screech owls and great horned owls, Florida’s smallest and largest owls respectively, are the only two owls with ear tufts. These tufts are not ears; the actual ear is a small opening in the side of the head, under the feathers. Both of these owls are primarily nocturnal hunters, but can and will hunt during the day when food is scarce. The screech owl eats insects, lizards, and mice. The great horned prefers larger prey like rats, rabbits, and other birds.
One of the most interesting features of all owls is the feather structure. The leading edge of the feather is soft and downy, giving the feathers an almost fur-like appearance and making it possible for the bird to fly silently. Owls do not make the same flapping noises that most birds do in flight. This allows the owl to silently approach prey without attracting any unwanted attention to it presence. A trip to PRWC when Luna and Bella are on glove gives our visitors a chance to get close enough to an owl to see their fuzzy little feet. Or fuzzy BIG feet, in Bella’s case.
Bella recently made her triumphant grand debut on glove at PRWC where she wowed the crowd with her majestic appearance. Luna is as cute as ever and remains a favourite. Whether you are Team Luna or Team Bella there is always something new and exciting to see at PRWC and a great deal to learn about living in harmony with the wide variety of creatures with which we share our little corner of paradise.
by-Robin Jenkins, DVM