Goodbye, Screech

Peace River Wildlife Center lost one of our favourite residents this past week.  An adult female eastern screech owl, imaginatively named Screech, passed away.  She had been in declining health for over a year and recently took a turn for the worse, resulting in a rapid decline and her ultimate death.

Screech was one of PRWC’s first education birds.  Former volunteer Maryann Sakamoto, a retired public teacher and principal, started taking Screech to Fisherman’s Village to talk to visitors there and point them in the direction of PRWC in case they were unaware of our existence—and most of them were at that time.  This program has become one of PRWC’s most successful outreach opportunities.  During season, our volunteers go to Fish’ville every Tuesday with different education birds and introduce tourists, residents and shoppers to the wonders of PRWC and our visitor numbers soar on those days.

Not only did Screech (with a little help from Maryann!) kick off an effective outreach program, but she was one of our most prolific foster mothers.  We often get young screech owls that have been displaced from their nests.  This can be a result of bad weather, tree trimming, sibling rivalry, a dog or cat attack, or any number of perils that can befall a young bird.  Our initial response is to re-nest these youngsters.  If we cannot do so due to an injury or inability to locate the nest or parents, the baby birds are raised in captivity until they are ready to be released. 

One of the biggest challenges with hand rearing raptors is their intelligence.  If they get accustomed to being fed by humans, they lose their innate distrust and fear of people.  This is called habituation and is extremely detrimental to their life in the wild.  In order for us to feed, medicate and clean members of these species, we have to hide our appearance with puppets, gloves and face shields.  You might think it is no easy feat to try to get a bit of chopped food into the dodging and weaving beak of a tiny raptor with a curtain of mesh over your eyes.  You would be wrong.  It is not difficult.  It is almost impossible.

Enter our saviours—foster parents.  A number of the permanent resident birds at PRWC serve as foster parents for conspecific babies (those of the same species), thus making our lives easier and providing enrichment for the adult birds as well.  Screech was one of our most prolific foster mothers.  She and her mate, Romeo, were taken off display every spring and placed in a habitat where they would raise orphaned screech owl babies.  From hatchlings, to nestlings, to fledglings—this dynamic team has raised an average of 20 babies each year, who go on to be successfully released thanks to the care and guidance of their foster parents.

Screech was admitted to PRWC on 03/17/2008 after having been found by a concerned citizen on the side of a road in Port Charlotte late tin he evening before.  This brave lady took the injured owl home overnight and brought it to PRWC first thing the next morning.  Unfortunately, Screech’s eye had suffered damage and she was not releasable.  Screech owls often fly low over the ground after mice.  If the mice are scurrying around fields or lawns, no problem (for the owl.)  But too often rodents hang out at the edges of roadways feeding on litter thrown from vehicles—Little Debbie wrappers, french fries, grease-soaked napkins and fast food bags.  As the owl’s presence spooks the mouse, it darts into the road with the owl following it.  If there is a car passing by at the time, the owl can hit the side of the car and get stunned or worse, since it is so focused on its prey and paying little heed to its surroundings.  We frequently see head and eye trauma, as well as fractured bones resulting from these incidents.

Screech settled in quickly to life in captivity with us at PRWC.  She became quite the fixture and all of the staff, volunteers and visitors fell in love with her.  Her right eye had been damaged from her injury.  Over the past few years she had been gradually losing sight in her left eye also, as a cataract formed there.  Last year she raised over 20 babies for us over the course of a few months.  This year she had just finished raising 13 babies and we had placed her back in her display habitat when we noticed her rapid decline.  She had appeared hale and hearty as she taught her young charges how to eat and remain wary of predators.

 We are grateful to Screech for assistance rendered over the years in raising productive, young, releasable owls and also for helping us to educate more people about the wonders of native Florida wildlife.  As an adult on admission in 2008, Screech was at least nine years old when she passed and possibly even older.  In the wild the life expectancy of a screech owl is three years.  Many of her fans have asked about contributing to a fund in her honour, the proceeds of which will go toward the new screech owl habitat to be built at the new PRWC facility in early planning stages now.  For more information or to donate, contact PRWC at 94-637-3830 or go to our donate page on the web site.

by- Robin Jenkins, DVM