Like a child leaving home our visiting barn owl has moved on with mixed feelings from the staff. His recovery was very rapid thanks to the expert care of our aviculturalists and as we had a spell of settled weather looming we thought that getting him back out to his home territory was the best thing to do. So this evening we took him back to his home and opened the box. There was a bit of a false start and a brief visit to the hedge but he soon got into the swing of flying again and headed off towards the derelict farmhouse that is his home.
A neighbour delivered a Barn Owl here on Thursday. He had found it floundering in his slurry pit. It was exhausted and caked in slurry. We tube fed it with finely ground up mouse that we give the baby falcons, and with electrolytes to provide fluids. Then we left it in a dark warm box to recover strength. The next day it was strong enough to take whole food and we gave it a good wash, but some of the slurry was too caked in to come off and we will tackle that later. Now the owl is recovering well and if we can give it a final clean so that it can have full insulation and waterproofing it should be ready to release again on the farm where it was found.
Open slurry pits are death traps, just like the tar pits of the Americas. A thin dry crust can be deceptive and animals can easily blunder in if it is not properly fenced. When the pit is emptied, sad corpses can clog the muck spreader. Cats, foxes and even calves come to light as barely distinguishable rotting remains. The NFU has campaigned for slurry pits to be adequately fenced, and yet still some farmers do not realise that their insurance will not cover them if an accident happens and their slurry pit has not been properly guarded. A child can fall in as easily as a calf.
But you cannot easily protect the pit from the sky. Birds can see the water and come down to bath, only to be mired. Similarly owls often drown in water troughs, and it is good practice to have a floating block of wood in there to give birds a chance to extricate themselves. I have even had a young sparrowhawk come down to a fresh cowpat and try to bath in it, and I have had to promptly wash her in the nearest stream. Of course hawking was over for the day, because it takes a long time for the hawk to dry out and preen. The old remedy, when a hawk was wet and almost comatose in water in winter, was to put her into the nosebag of the horse. The warm breath of the horse would help the hawk recover, but I would think the horse might get a little excited finding a cross hawk attached to his nose! I once had a sparrowhawk catch a moorhen in the Hampshire Avon in January and almost die of cold. Thinking of the nose bag trick, I put her inside my shirt and, yes, it worked! I fished her out when I got home and she was a bit dishevelled but she soon preened herself back to rights. When I was a student at St Andrews, on one occasion my goshawk decided to bath in the river Eden, which at that point was almost tidal. I had to walk alongside the river while he floated by and completed his ablutions and then show a lure to tempt him out on my side. The nearest bridge was two miles away.
Raptors can also come down with their prey onto slurry pits and floating bogs. I have had a falcon take a crow on a slurry pit and then we have to use a little trick. Every falconer should always carry a creance in his bag. This is a light line about 50m long. You attach one end to something, then walk around the slurry pit, holding the creance clear of the surface. Then you hook the line on the falcon’s legs and gently pull in the loop and guide her to shore. The same trick can be used when she kills on a cliff that is too dangerous to climb. In that case, a lure is attached to the creance and dangled next to the falcon until she cannot resist grabbing it, even though she also has hold of her prey. Then, either from above, or from below, you gently pull her clear of the cliff and she will flutter and tumble down, still holding both prey and lure. I have had falcons come down with crows onto rivers and lakes. They can swim ashore with their prey, but if there are reed beds I have had to wade out and rescue them. Falcons can come down with their prey in the most unlikely places. I even had one land straight into the open grave of a dog, just as the husband and wife were burying it. But that’s another story.
Barn owls are not doing very well here. These wet years mean that they easily get sodden in the wet grass catching voles. This particular owl was just unlucky, and if we can give him a second chance there is a good possibility he might survive the winter.