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Owl released after rough weekend in Ashland

As 50 awed animal lovers stood watching near Callahan’s Lodge, a great horned owl stepped out of its cage, spread its wings and flew a silent, level path into its home woods. The people clapped and cheered.

It was another success story for Wildlife Images, which had nursed the bedraggled and dying adult male owl back to health over the past two weeks.

On Sept. 28, chicken rancher Cortney Sugg, a resident of Old Siskiyou Highway, spied the raptor out her back window. He was lying on his side and “had that gremlin look,” she said. “He was wet, badly skunked and covered with dung. I wasn’t sure what he was.”

She put on leather gloves, picked him up and put him in a cat carrier. A call to Wildlife Images Rehabilitation & Education Center in Merlin confirmed the organization would take him. She sought a driver on the Facebook site Ashland Peeps. The site’s administrator, Sabena Vaughan, and her daughter volunteered — and named him Denali.

“He looked like a mudball and smelled awful,” Jen Osburn Eliot, Wildlife Images clinical manager told a crowd at Callahan’s, which is 2 miles above the spot where he was found.

An inspection showed no broken bones, punctures or abrasions — just a guy who had been through a bad episode and was at death’s door. They couldn’t figure out what had happened, but Eliot explained that owls are predators of skunks and maybe he’d attacked an exceptionally mean one.

They bathed Denali, and fed him some live rodents (they keep a rodent colony) — and the next day “he looked great, just a little thin.” They feared “bioaccumulation” of yard chemicals, but bloodwork showed no problem. His beak was pale but soon regained its color, she said.

Eliot invited the rapt crowd to the edge of the woods, set down the cage and opened the door. There would be no tossing the bird into the air, as scientists have figured out that birds being released already are stressed and scared, and tossing them in the air just makes it worse.

So the crowd stood in silence. So did the bird, for several minutes. Then the healthy looking creature took wing, and headed downslope to its presumed habitat. It was a breathtaking sight, caught on video of many phones.

When they heard about the problem, members of Ashland Peeps donated money for gas to get to Merlin. Vaughan suggested donations to Wildlife Images, and they gave $400, she said.

“He was in rough shape, dehydrated and definitely was going to die,” Vaughan said. “His feathers were so coated, they couldn’t keep him warm. He seemed to have had a bad tussle with a skunk.”

A hilarious posting on wildlifeimages.org was headlined, “Party Animal Recovers From Rough Weekend.” It says the injury was “compromised feathers,” adding, “Out of 1,000+ wild patients, very few are so incredibly expressive upon intake. We imagine the photo taken to document the bird’s terrible condition must have exactly matched his feelings about the matter. When posted on social media, community members immediately noted how dejected, embarrassed, ashamed and guilty the patient looked, after what could have only been a weekend of mayhem.

“We can’t be certain about what happened to Patient 19-955 out on a rural Ashland property. So far he is pleading the fifth. The story may have gone like this:

“Hungry owl sees delicious skunk. Skunk defends itself with foul liquid. Owl temporarily disabled by potent defense mechanism. Owl tailspins into manure pile. Owl struggles in wet field until a giant being appears to help. End scene.

“While we are careful to not personify our patients — since, after all, they are wild animals, with this particular case it’s difficult not to. Many on Facebook pointed out that he must have been out drinking with his buddies, got beat up by the local raptor gang, lost an epic dance off with the skunk, or did the toughest workout on the planet. ... Either way, we know two facts: Great horned owls love skunk. Great horned owls have a terrible sense of smell.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune "Denali", a great horned owl, is released near Callahan’s Lodge on Monday Evening.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Jen Osburn Eliot, Wildlife Images clinical manager, release "Denali" a great horned owl, at near Callahan’s Lodge on Monday Evening.