Sunday, September 24, 2006

Losing a Neighbor Owl to West Nile Virus

I've got all of our local owls named and can tell them by voice. But in August one of those neighbor owls was found in my human neighbor's farmyard. It appeared to have West Nile Virus (along with some maggots in a developing primary.)

It looked small to me, so I assumed it was a male. (But everything looks small compared to Alice!) The beak had much layering to it, which made me think it was an old bird and likely a territory holder. But I was pretty sure it wasn't Wendell, our previously resident male. I had taken an owl out of the neighbor's chicken coop that I'm pretty sure was Wendell, and he was so unaggressive it was hard to believe. I just slowly walked up to him and grabbed his legs. He didn't even struggle much, yet he was perfectly healthy. And he had black feathers on his eyelids.

This owl was terribly aggressive. I've never been seriously bitten by an owl before, and this one gave me a nice bruise on my forearm and drew blood from my hand as I worked to get some fluids into it during its 24 hour wait for a ride to the University of Minnesota Raptor Center.

The diagnosis was West Nile Virus (but official autopsy tested are still pending.) For a Great Horned Owl, that's basically a death sentence. But they gave this bird a chance to try to pull through while they gave supportive care. A sign was posted on its cage warning about its aggressively bitey tendencies.

With time, though, the owl went blind. It was unresponsive unless touched, and wouldn't fly. West Nile Virus had done its damage, and it was permanent. So the bird was euthanized and submitted for West Nile Virus testing this past week.

During the owl's several week stay at The Raptor Center, a silent, lone owl made regular appearances on the farm buildings at my neighbor's farm. I assume our bird's mate was looking for it.

In the meantime, I was listening closely and going back through my notes to see who's hoot was missing from the resident mix. Both Wendell and Wheezy had been absent for some time, but a week ago when our resident male, Victor, started pushing his eastern boundary, Wendell finally showed up to hoot. Without Wheezy. Wheezy nearly always hooted with him. I'm pretty sure she wore the pants in that family.

Today I contacted The Raptor Center about another bird I was sending up and inquired about my neighbor owl. I knew they would likely put it down and submit it for testing, but I was dying to know the sex. Its weight fell in a range that could have been a large male or a small female. While the WNV results were still pending, the sex was listed: female.

That sealed it for me. I'm sure our West Nile Virus victim was Wheezy. She was the owl that taught me I could tell individual owls apart by their voice, since she had such a distinctive hoot. At least I got to see her before she left this world.

Poor Wendell is so unaggressive, will he find a mate? Maybe some aggressive young hotty will pin him down. Theoretically there should be a lot of young "floater" birds just hanging out, waiting for a vacancy like this. But I haven't heard any juveniles this year or last, so I'll be very curious to see (hear) what happens in the near future....

Below is a photo of Wheezy that I took after I picked her up. You can hear her hoot on my "Meet the Owls" page at I'll never forget her hoot.

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