Hoo boy, that was close! How a twitch saved an owl in a dustbin
A Hartbeespoort barn owlet tossed into the rubbish cheats death with the help of caring bird rescuers
A twitch of the leg was the beginning of a resurrection for a little barn owlet who was thrown in the bin.
Now, not only is Simba alive, but after a month of rehabilitation he is days away from leaving the nest for good.
At the beginning of July the Owl Rescue Centre in Hartbeespoort received a call about four barn owlets who had fallen out of their nest in a palm after strong winds.
Founder Brendan Murray and his wife Danelle came to the rescue but only found three little fluffies. The owner of the property told them the fourth had not survived the elements and had been thrown in the dustbin.
There are three major lineages of barn owl:
The Western barn owl, found in Europe, western Asia and Africa;
The Eastern barn owl – in eastern Asia and Australasia; and
The American barn owl – SANBI
“So I asked rather if we could take him back to the sanctuary and bury him,” Danelle explained.
The owner’s young son fetched the chick and placed him in a plastic bag and put him on the back of the Centre’s Land Rover.
“When we got back to the Centre we hydrated and stabilised the three youngsters.”
Danelle then went to get a towel to bury the fourth in.
“I always bury owls in a towel or an old T-shirt. [It] just seems ungracious to just place them in a grave without being wrapped up.”
She took the owlet out of the plastic and as she went to place him onto the towel ... there was a twitch.
“Miraculously he’s alive,” she said.
The bird was cold, stiff and emaciated, but he had survived for hours in a comatose state.
According to Danelle, because he had no energy Simba appeared dead. She explained that when owls have low energy levels they slow down to a comatose state, where they have no energy to move.
“As soon as we saw signs of life we started immediate emergency care. We needed to be careful because the owl could easily go into shock. So we had to slowly raise his temperature and hydrate him. Only after 18 hours could he start eating. If you raise their temperature too early or feed them too early they can go into shock. They just don’t have the energy to digest the food.
“We often get owls in a comatose state, but never had [one] slipped into a coma so low we thought it dead.”
The owlet survived the night in his brooder box and in the morning he devoured his food.
“We named him Simba, from The Lion King where Rafiki says: Simba – he’s alive!”
Now, at about 63 days old, Simba and his siblings have been placed in a release enclosure where they will stay until they work up the courage to finally leave the centre for good.
The enclosure is shared with other owls going through the same development process, and is in an area where there are platforms and trees, and where food will be available for them for as long as they stay.
The box is open and they can come and go as they please. First they check out their environment from the entrance to the box. Then they take short flights to the nearby trees and platforms until they are fitter and braver, and will eventually fly away to start new lives as adult owls.
And Simba and his siblings are finding their wings.
“He’s been coming in and out [of his enclosure].”
The sanctuary has about 100 owls in different stages of care, from babies needing rearing to birds in high care and those in the release enclosure.
During Simba’s recovery the Murrays and rescue staff have monitored hundreds of other critical cases.
According to the SA National Biodiversity Institute the barn owl is the most widely distributed bird species in the world and has an endangered status of least concern in SA.
However, the bird – also called the ghost owl – is often associated with symbols of death and witchcraft and their main enemies are people who use poison to eradicate vermin. They often succumb to secondary poisoning.