It was a cold and drizzly night on Jan. 29 when Joe Bogdan, a retired Milford police officer, drove past an injured owl lying in the middle of Naugatuck Avenue. He pulled over, and so did another car, a couple who moved the injured owl to the side of the road.
Bogdan called police and then Steve Johnson, Milford’s open space manager, who contacted Rose Crisci of Blue Moon Raptors, a licensed rehabilitator for owls. Soon these rescuers, along with two police officers — David Bodnar and Det. Stephen Noss — converged on the site to secure the owl, which had been hit by a car and suffered severe head trauma.
Crisci didn’t think the owl was going to make it. She brought it back to her facility in North Guilford that night, but it didn’t look good. Even up to two weeks in the owl wasn’t responding. But then, just at that two week mark, the owl started to eat on its own, a sign that it was rallying.
“When you go in and you see that food is gone, you know you’re over the hump,” Crisci said.
On Wednesday evening, March 13, after recovering for more than a month under Crisci’s care and demonstrating the ability to fly and hunt, the owl was set free at Mondo Ponds, a wooded nature preserve in Milford.
A small group of people watched as Crisci put on heavy gloves and carefully took the owl from a carrier, held it for a few minutes, and then watched the owl fly to a nearby tree.
The young barred owl, likely hatched last spring or summer, stayed perched in the tree for a good half hour, looking back at the group of rescuers, turning its head toward them as they finally said goodbye and walked back to their cars.
Bogdan was one of the people who watched the owl take flight.
“It’s exciting,” he said. “I love nature, and we didn’t think it was going to survive that night.”
Crisci is confident the owl will thrive now. “He is strong willed, feisty,” Crisci said, noting that barred owls typically live to 10 or 15 years old in the wild.
Barred owls, described at allaboutbirds.org as large, stocky owls with rounded heads, no ear tufts, and medium length, rounded tails, have been making headlines and appearing frequently on social media posts this year because of increased sightings and unusual behavior. Area rehabilitators report more cases of the owls being hit by cars.
Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, said while experts debate the specifics, there is general consensus that the increase in sightings is due to an increase in the number of barred owls combined with a lack of small rodents, forcing the owls to hunt outside of their normal places and times.
“We all know that owls are secretive and stealthy and, most of all, active in the dark, when you might hear them but rarely see them,” states a lengthy January posting about barred owls on the Audubon website. “But this winter seems different. Barred owls have been making brazen, daylight appearances throughout Connecticut over the last few weeks. Bird experts have been watching in amazement.”
Comins and Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation at the Connecticut Audubon, initially speculated that the increased sightings were due to a successful breeding season last spring and summer triggered by a spike in the number of small mammals and amphibians that barred owls eat.
But the Audubon later learned that it was likely a drop in the rodent population that has left the owls hungry and searching for food, and therefore venturing out during the day and into areas they might not otherwise hunt.
Several experts weighed in on the situation at CtAudubon.org, including Scott Williams Ph.D., a certified wildlife biologist who works at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.
“I think bird of prey abundances built up over the past couple years, and now with this poor rodent year we are having this year, they are desperate for food and are hunting roadside, being dumb, and hunting during the day,” Williams wrote. “Driving around the state I am seeing dead owls and hawks everywhere.”
Crisci said a loss of habitat due to development is also a problem for owls.
When Crisci saw Mondo Ponds Wednesday night, which Johnson said boasts about 35 acres of open space, she said it is a perfect place for the owl she nursed back to health, and likely the area from which it came.
People must be licensed to work with raptors. People who find sick or injured hawks or owls can go to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) website for a list of qualified rehabilitators: https://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2222&q=320806&deepNav_GID=1655.