October 6, 2011
One September morning, Michelle Cable's two sons got an unexpected lesson in wildlife.
Derrick 11 and Jordan 7, were headed to catch the school bus at the end of Walker Road in Washington Township when the family happened upon an injured great horned owl.
"We got so close to it," Michelle Cable said. "She never moved, she just stayed there."
The Cable family witnessed the completion of a good deed on Wednesday when veterinarian Jeff Pope released the bird back into the wild after a few weeks of rehabilitation.
Great horned owls are common in Pennsylvania, though they are heard more frequently than seen.
"They are a tertiary predator at the top of the food chain," Pope said.
After seeing the owl that morning, Cable said she and her husband checked on it throughout the day and into the evening. They expected the bird to be gone by morning.
By coincidence, Pope traveled Walker Road the next morning and took in the bird after talking to the Cables.
"She hardly struggled, so he knew something was wrong," Cable said.
The owl had suffered "blunt trauma" and smelled of skunk, a common prey of the great horned owl, Pope said. The injury could have been the result of a collision with a vehicle, he speculated.
"The bird was injured; it had a minor wing injury and a minor head injury," he said, as well as a mouth infection. "The bird was very fortunate it was found before it was too late to bring her back."
After treating the animal for several days at Pittsburgh East Animal Hospital in Monroeville, Pope took it to his home, where he has a flight enclosure. He determined the bird is a female by a brood patch on its breast from which feathers are removed in anticipation of incubating eggs.
Pope fed the owl a variety of meals -- domestic mice, chipmunks killed by cats, and road-killed rabbits and squirrels. As birds of prey, owls leave nothing behind, eating every bit of their kills -- bones, fur, feathers and meat. The next day, they "cast-regurgitate" a pellet consisting of the bones, fur and feathers.
He estimated the bird to be 3 to 4 pounds with a 5-foot wingspan. He released it last night outside his Washington Township home.
"I live in the woods, and she'll be released very close to where she was found," Pope said. "I've been working with birds of prey since the early '80s."
Pope, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, treated and released an injured osprey at the Kiski River two years ago.
During the rehabilitation, Pope kept the Cables updated on the bird's progress. It was a learning experience for the boys, who searched the Internet for information about owls.
"You expect to see wildlife, living where we do" -- but not an owl, Michelle Cable said.
"They were just thrilled about this," she said. "We just kept in close touch with (Pope), and the boys are all excited to get reports on her."