Northern Saw-whet Owl with Paralyzed Legs Heals and Heads Back to the Wild

By Ali Berman, Communications Manager

Sometimes, it just takes one experience with wildlife to inspire a lifelong fascination and connection with the natural world.

In October, 2015, A.J, Alexa and Olivia, three 5th grade students at Corbett Elementary School, were carrying their lunch totes back to class when they heard a crash.

“I was just sitting there,” said A.J, “and I heard a smack against the window and I looked back and there was an owl lying on its back. It was trying to fly back up but it couldn’t.”

The concerned students went to get help and soon a teacher had secured the Northern Saw-whet Owl in a box, ready for transport to the Wildlife Care Center.

When it arrived at the WCC, Deb Sheaffer, our staff veterinarian, performed an initial exam and took an X-ray. She found that the owl had no broken bones but did suffer from leg paralysis, an issue common with window strike victims. Deb rolled up a small towel to prop the owl up, making it more comfortable, and continued treatment as we waited to see if it would show signs of improvement. The first 24 to 48 hours in a case like this frequently indicates whether or not the bird has a chance.

“We see this all too often,” said Lacy Campbell, the WCC Operations Manager. “Birds hit windows and can suffer from internal injuries, broken bones or paralysis. It isn’t uncommon for them to succumb to their injuries.”

A photo of a Northern Saw-whet Owl with a stethoscope on its chest.

This owl surprised us all. Within a few days it had partial use of its legs. Over the following weeks and months we continued supportive care as it steadily recovered.

“It’s pretty special. Because it took a long time to recover, I don’t think anyone was expecting it to get better. This is why we do our best for each animal regardless of its circumstance,” continued Lacy.

When things started to look really hopeful for the Saw-whet, we contacted Corbett Elementary to see if they’d be interested in having us come back to the school to release the bird, and to invite the students to learn about its story and watch the release. Principal Hanes enthusiastically told us that, even though it had been months since that day when A.J., Alexa and Olivia found the owl, they and countless other students from all grade levels were still asking how the bird was doing. This one event in their lives sparked their curiosity and their empathy, introducing them to the world of owls and teaching them about one of the biggest threats to birds in the USA: window strikes.

Window Strikes kill an estimated close to one billion birds each year. At the WCC, it’s one of the biggest causes of injuries we see and treat, which is why our conservation team is working with businesses and the public to help reduce window strikes. (Learn more about reducing window strikes here.)

This little owl faced some roadblocks on its road to recovery. As many in the Portland area will remember, the rain hardly let up for two days in a row over the winter months and for a bird who had been recovering indoors for so long, we needed the best possible weather for a release. Every time we thought we’d be able to release the owl back into the wild, the weather stalled our plans.

Thankfully, even rainy winters in Oregon eventually end. The weather cleared up and on a beautiful sunny day in late March, six months after the owl first came into the WCC, Lacy and a volunteer drove out to Corbett Elementary with the Saw-whet Owl to release it back into its territory.

Lacy talked to a group of more than 200 students about the Wildlife Care Center, this owl’s story, and how we can help prevent window strikes in the future. When Lacy asked the large group how they think people can help, one suggested decals, a fantastic potential solution, especially for residential homes.

Then, once the kids had the chance to ask their questions, they all headed outside to an area close to a cluster of trees where they could release the owl. We could tell you how it went, but we’d much rather show you…in slow motion.

Every rescue is a thrill and a privilege, but this one, after such a long and uncertain recovery, definitely felt just a little bit sweeter.

Every year the Wildlife Care Center treats 3,000 injured or orphaned native animals. If you would like to make a donation to support our wildlife rehabilitation work at the Wildlife Care Center, click here.