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Regaining wings

HANCOCK – When a carload of Michigan Technological University students driving on US-41 hit and stunned a low-flying barred owl on Quincy Hill last week, they weren’t really sure what to do. So they called Tech Public Safety and Police Services, even if they were a bit out of the campus cops’ jurisdiction.

Turns out, that was exactly the right move. They quickly connected with DPS dispatcher Jen Burroughs, who’s working on her wildlife rehabilitation certification, and she took the owl home and nursed him for the next few days. Then Burroughs handed the owl over to the Chocolay Raptor Center near Marquette, home to Jerry Maynard, who has both a raptor rehab certification and a flight cage large enough to test the owl’s wings.

On Sunday, Maynard and his Chocolay Center partner Bob Jensen brought the owl back and released him at the Quincy Mine Hoist, less than a mile from where the accident occurred. Jensen pulled the owl from a box with thick leather gloves, held him by the talons a few minutes and let him fly. The owl soared confidently, circled and landed in a window of the gift shop to assess the situation, before eventually moving on.

“Owls are territorial and don’t migrate,” said Jensen, explaining why it was crucial to bring the owl home for release. “He’s lived his whole life here, and knows where his food comes from.”

Only 20 to 30 percent of the birds the raptor center takes in survive, said Maynard, making Sunday’s successful release – the Chocolay Center’s eighth this year – something to celebrate.

“Today is tremendous, a rush, a thrill,” he said. “The release of a live bird like today makes it worthwhile.”

For Burroughs, who’s had significantly more experience rehabbing mammals than birds, the owl was a somewhat intimidating experience, despite advice from the Chocolay pros.

“When Jerry said to hand feed him I said, ‘Really?,'” she remembers, noting the owl would puff up his feathers and start kicking his talons when she approached. Eventually, she found the courage to hold him by the talons and pry his beak open. Before that, she said, the owl had been hiding rather than eating his raw chicken dinners.

Maynard and Jensen switched the owl to mice, which they buy from a zoo supply service, in the last 36 hours before his release.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing unusual about owls being hit by cars, said Jensen, noting it’s a common story at the raptor center. It’s important to be careful picking up an injured bird, which is likely to be sick, he noted.

If you must, use gloves for protection, place it in a covered box right away and call the raptor center or another qualified rehabilitator as soon as possible.

Owls make up a good chunk of the population at the raptor center, Jensen said, although this year the center has also hosted a young peregrine falcon born at the Presque Isle Power Plant, one of the first peregrine falcons in 60 years born in the Marquette area.

Jensen said rescuing birds is actually only part of the raptor center’s mission. Their main focus is education. The center has a handful of resident raptors too injured to return to the wild, and he and Maynard regularly bring them to local schools and elsewhere for programs.

“We teach them about the raptors’ role in the environment and why it’s important to protect them,” he said. “The kids love it, and the teachers love it.”

To contact the Chocolay Raptor Center, call 249-3598.