Wintering Burrowing Owl Collides with Window in Oregon City

When software engineer Terry Voorhis was walking on the grounds of Clackamas County’s 55-acre Red Soils Campus, he came upon an unusual sight. It looked like a ball of feathers right at the foot of one of the glass-covered four-story buildings.

“I could tell it was some sort of bird,” said Terry. “The head was all tucked in and the wings were folded over. It looked like it crashed into the window. It was laying at the bottom on the sidewalk.”

He gave the bird a light nudge to see if it was still alive, and it rolled over and kicked its feet. That’s when he knew he had found an owl. Terry recalled, “You could tell the thing was really distressed.”

Terry went up to his office and enlisted the help of two of his animal-loving coworkers, as well as the advice of his daughter who had previously interned at the Carolina Raptor Center outside of Charlotte. They grabbed a box, retrieved the bird, and brought it to Bird Alliance of Oregon’s Wildlife Care Center.

When the bird arrived, we were surprised to see a Burrowing Owl–only the third to ever come through our Wildlife Care Center! When birders want to see a Burrowing Owl in Oregon, they head east of the Cascades, not generally to Oregon City. But during the winter months, these elusive birds can be found dotted throughout the Willamette Valley along the I-5 corridor, and even at Portland International Airport.

Burrowing Owl after being placed in a box, photo by Terry Voorhis.

This Burrowing Owl arrived in our care with two fractures on its left wing that had to be surgically repaired. We’re thankful for our partnership with the Oregon Zoo and their staff veterinarian Kelly Flaminio (our former vet!) for performing the surgery. 

Connie Lo, our staff veterinarian, said about the bird’s status, “We are currently in the post-operative phase, including physical therapy to increase range of motion as well as the flexibility of the patagium, the structure on the leading edge of the wing that is crucial to flight.”

As with all of our patients, the prognosis is guarded until we know for sure whether the bird will be able to fly well enough to hunt for prey. What we do know is, as with all window-strike patients, its injury was preventable.

A wildlife rehabilitator holds a Burrowing Owl as it gets an exam.

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Window strikes: a major hazard for birds

Clackamas County’s facilities are far from alone when it comes to sharing responsibility for window strikes. Researchers estimate that up to 1 billion birds die every year in the United States alone from colliding with a window, making window collisions the third largest threat to birds after habitat destruction and cat predation.

“Window strikes are such a prevalent cause of injury because birds can’t see glass,” explained Wildlife Care Center Manager Stephanie Herman. “Not only is the barrier itself invisible to birds, but glass often reflects foliage or sky, leading birds to believe they are flying into a safe space. That means that they often hit windows at full speed.”

While not all birds die on impact, even those that survive the initial strike are stunned or fly away and may not survive the incident. Many will succumb to their injuries out of sight, or will be predated on by cats, dogs, other birds, or hit by cars while on the ground trying to recover from the initial head injury. These and other injuries, like broken bones, require intervention. In fact, 22 percent of the birds we treat at the Wildlife Care Center are window-strike victims. They come in most often with massive head trauma, broken beaks and broken bones.

Many people think high rises are the major culprits and are surprised to hear that 99 percent of all bird collisions happen at low-rise buildings and residential homes. Folks who live in apartments or private homes, or work in low-rise buildings have the collective power to reduce this threat and save lives in the process. This is a reflection of the sheer number of low-rise structures and residential homes across the landscape, which far outnumber skyscrapers.

The public can help by watching for problem windows. Find a dead bird under your window? Hear a thud from a collision? See an imprint of a bird or feathers stuck to your window? If so, that’s a window you can make bird-safe.

Click here for in-depth ideas on finding a solution that works for your window. Everything from applying decals to reducing light pollution can help. There are innovations that fit every budget, from professional installations to DIY solutions.

Northern Flicker window strike victim, photo by Ian Abraham.

In addition to working with the public through our Wildlife Care Center and educational campaigns, Bird Alliance of Oregon works with the city and businesses to reduce this hazard in the greater Portland Metro Area. Last year, the City of Portland implemented bird-safe window standards as a part of the Central City Plan. New development and major remodels with 30 percent or more glass, as well as windows next to ecoroofs and vegetated areas, now require bird-safe standards. This year, Bird Alliance of Oregon successfully advocated for the City to provide funding to scope a Dark Skies initiative to address light pollution, which is another major factor in the high incidence of window collisions.

Every bit of progress, from someone putting a decal on a dangerous window to enacting city-wide regulations, all make a difference, so birds like the Burrowing Owl never have to come through our doors.

The Burrowing Owl is a fighter, and we’re doing everything we can to get it back out into the wild. The bird is alert and active. While it doesn’t have full extension of the injured wing yet, it’s still able to get around and spends most of the time on a high perch. 

If it does make a full recovery, we will release it back into a seasonally appropriate habitat.

What to do if a bird hits your window

If a bird hits your window, observe it before handling. Some strike victims recover after initially being stunned. If a stunned bird is in imminent danger (i.e., a lurking cat), place it in a box and set it in a safe and quiet place. Check the bird in one hour. If it is alert, active and able to fly, release it immediately. If the bird is still having trouble, bring it to the Wildlife Care Center, 5151 NW Cornell Road (open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. every day, 503-292-0304). Click here for more information.