(Today's For the Birds transcript)
Last week I got a sad email from Mary-Ellen Holmes, who wrote from her farm south of Superior, Wisconsin, “This morning about 5:30, I went to check my horses. Unfortunately what I found was an owl attached to my electric fence. My fence is hot wire, cold wire, hot wire—all about a foot apart. It looks as if he was coming in for a mouse. His talons are outstretched and his wings are up and forward as if about to pounce. He made a direct hit with his feet on the bottom wire and grounded himself on the middle wire with his wings. It looks as if it was instantaneous as he appears to be in mid-flight. It was -21F at my house this morning so he is frozen solid…beautiful and perfect. This is such a freak accident. I have never seen anything even remotely like this. I feel terrible. But I have no idea how I could have foreseen this.” Mary-Ellen added, “I feel this death is a real loss. I try to live as closely and respectfully with the natural world as possible.”
Mary-Ellen’s fence was necessary, so this tragic loss couldn’t be helped. Fences kill millions of birds a year. The very most vulnerable species include owls and prairie grouse such as Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens, because these birds fly low across open spaces. Owls have trouble seeing fences in the darkness. Prairie grouse probably do see but ignore fences. In their world, anything the width of grasses is soft and simply bends out of the way when they walk or fly through it, so they never suspect that anything so unyielding as wire exists until it’s too late.
In the early 90s, some Minnesota birders and I were headed to Arizona’s famous Madera Canyon for some early morning birding when we came upon a Barn Owl that was ensnared by a barbed wire fence. It had apparently been carrying a packrat to its nest when its dangling leg hit a barb, which ripped a three-inch tear in the skin and hooked firmly into it. The bird dangled upside down, both legs bloody and slashed up by the time we arrived on the scene. The temperature was already above 80, and the owl was starting to go into shock. Had we not discovered it until we were headed back for breakfast, it would almost certainly have been dead. Fortunately, I had enough experience as a rehabber to help it until the nearest veterinary clinic opened that morning. We left a message on their answering machine, and by the time we got there, a wildlife rehabber was on the scene. The bird needed quite a few stitches on both legs, and steroids and antibiotics. The rehabber kept it for four or five days, until it made a complete recovery. They released it exactly where we’d found it. In all likelihood, it immediately returned to its family.
This weekend, the Duluth News-Tribune reported that Kathy Paquette of West Duluth had found a Northern Saw-whet Owl ensnared in the mesh fence surrounding her garden. Fortunately, she found it while it was still doing well, so she untangled it and brought it to an area rehabber. This bird was held for observation overnight, and released at Paquette’s place the next day. The paper quoted her, “Oh, my god,” she said. “That was a dream come true for me. I love animals. I like to save animals… I was in tears, I was so happy I found him before he was dead.” I’m sure Mary-Ellen Holmes dearly wishes she could have saved the beautiful Great Horned Owl that had been electrocuted. Sad as its death was, at least this poor bird died instantly. Its body will be donated to a nature center for education, and Mary-Ellen said I could use photos of it in my own programs. There’s not much we can do about necessary fencing. But after fences have served their purpose and land use changes, old fencing should be removed. If photos of Mary-Ellen’s bird jolt even a few people take down unnecessary fences, the bird will not have died in vain.
Good fences do not make good neighbors, at least not for birds. Fortunately, good people do.
(Fence wire is still partly attached to this poor Barn Owl. I took this photo on August 6 at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. The bird was en route to a rehab clinic.)