THE BLOG
02/26/2014 11:52 am ET | Updated Apr 28, 2014

Screech Owl Trapped in Chimney for Five Days Flies Free

WildCare's Wildlife Hospital treats nearly 4,000 ill, injured and orphaned wild animal patients from over 200 species every year. This is one patient's story.

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Meet this Western Screech Owl at WildCare as Medical Staff tests his flight ability, then watch him fly free! Trouble viewing the video? Click here to watch it on YouTube.

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Screech owl at WildCare

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Imagine being trapped in a chimney!

This Western Screech Owl spent the first five days of last week trapped in the chimney of a Kentfield, California home without access to food or water.

Hearing scratching coming from the fireplace for several days, the home's residents assumed it was rats or squirrels climbing the exterior of the chimney. But when the sounds didn't resolve themselves, they decided to investigate.

Imagine their surprise when their flashlight caught the bright yellow eyes of this little screech owl blinking down at them from above!

But how do you get a scared and dehydrated little owl out of your chimney?

The residents called WildCare's 24-hour Living with Wildlife Hotline 415-456-SAVE to find out. When Hotline operator Barbara Pritchard answered the call, she knew the situation was an emergency for the owl who had been trapped without food or water for five days.

She put the concerned residents in contact with our Hungry Owl Project, whose owl experts spoke with them multiple times during the day, and the Marin Humane Society, whose officer went to the house to try to rescue the owl.

But the shape of the chimney made it impossible for the MHS officer to net the bird. A call to yet another organization, Wildlife Emergency Services, solicited the excellent advice to place crickets at the bottom of the chimney to tempt the owl down, so the would-be rescuers left the home to purchase crickets.

When they returned with the crickets, they discovered the Hungry Owl Project's advice to put a dish of water at the base of the chimney had had the same positive results. A second Marin Humane Society officer had been dispatched to the home, and she was able to capture the little owl from the fireplace.

But despite his ordeal, the owl still had enough energy to make a bid for freedom by fluttering out of the officer's hold! Fortunately the watching rescuers and their guests visiting from Paris had the presence of mind to hold up blankets as a visual barrier to prevent the owl from accessing the stairway to the upper part of the house, and the officer was able to recapture him.

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This video of the screech owl's rescue from the fireplace was filmed and edited by co-rescuer, Linda Karma. Although WildCare doesn't name our patients, this owl's rescuers dubbed him "Bartholibou," a combination of Bartholomew (a wise name for a little owl) and "hibou" the French word for owl. Trouble viewing the video? Click to watch it on YouTube.

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The owl in the fireplace. Photo by Linda Karma


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Installing the chimney cap


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The owl just before release


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He flies free!


Emergency care at a WildCare staffer's home

It was late evening by this point, and WildCar's Wildlife Hospital was closed for the night. Because the owl needed immediate care, the Marin Humane Society officer brought the dehydrated and exhausted bird to the home of WildCare staffer Mary Pounder.

Mary gave the owl subcutaneous fluids and offered him food, which he promptly ate. She kept him in a warm, quiet enclosure for the night and brought him to WildCare's Wildlife Hospital in the morning.

Once at WildCare, the owl received a thorough intake exam including bloodwork and a physical. The fluids given the evening before had made a significant improvement to the bird’s condition, and Medical Staff noted on his chart that he was "BAR" -- bright, alert and responsive. The exam had revealed no injuries, so the bird was given additional fluids and a good meal and allowed time to recuperate.

The next day, a follow-up exam and bloodwork revealed that the owl had regained proper hydration and his condition was much improved. WildCare Medical Staff took the owl into an aviary to make sure he could fly and perch after his ordeal, and he demonstrated perfect form on both counts. He was ready for release!

Everyone needs a chimney cap to protect owls like this one!

People are often surprised to learn that a significant number of the Western Screech Owls
WildCare admits have fallen down chimneys. Screech owls are cavity nesters, and they prefer to roost in holes in trees. An owl will see the inviting opening of the chimney and, not realizing how far down a chimney goes, will drop in and keep falling. Other wildlife will also investigate a chimney opening, especially at this time of year when animals are starting to look for available den sites.

The only way to prevent this problem is to remove what is attracting the owls and other animals -- in this case, by capping the chimney.

WildCare's humane non-lethal pest control service, WildCare Solutions, contacted the owner of the Kentfield home to offer their services for capping the chimney. He agreed immediately, and the appointment was set for the same evening as the owl's release. Obviously it wouldn't make sense to release the owl back to his territory if the tempting opening at the top of the chimney was still accessible!

Wildlife Solutions Specialist, David Martins climbed onto the roof and set to work capping the chimney openings with heavy-duty wire mesh. The mesh will allow proper ventilation for the chimney, but will prevent wildlife from falling inside and getting trapped.

Successful release

Finally it was time to release this little owl back to his home in the wild!

Releasing screech owls must be done at dusk, since the owls are nocturnal, and a newly-released owl is also at risk from attack by crows if set free while crow flocks are still awake and active. Waiting as long as possible into dusk is preferred.

On Friday evening, capping the chimney took just enough time for dusk to fall. All four rescuers were on hand to watch him fly free, as WildCare's Director of Animal Care, Melanie Piazza gently extracted the owl from his carrying box.

Everyone cheered as he successfully flew away from Melanie's gloves into his woodland habitat. It was especially gratifying to know that this male owl was back home, as he probably has a mate for whom he was investigating potential nest sites when he fell into the chimney.

Thanks to the cooperation of so many organizations and people, this owl (and the future owlets he may have!) will have a real chance at success in the wild.