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It’s unusual to see an owl in the daytime, so Bobby Heitzman was surprised one early fall morning to see a great horned owl sitting on the fence in his back yard on Second Street in Campbellsburg.
So he urged his wife, Kathy, to get her cell phone and take photos of the bird from the kitchen window, where he was standing.
After Kathy took a few shots, Bobby opened the back door. The bird didn’t move, so he suggested she try to take some through the open doorway. When the bird still didn’t move, Kathy continued to move toward the fence.
That’s when she saw the bird was in trouble.
“It was really, really bad,” Kathy recalled, adding that something was wrong with the bird’s beak. Flies were swarming around it’s mouth, and the bird continued to sit on the fence, motionless, as the couple moved closer toward it.
Seeing it was sick, Bobby fetched a fish net and a live-animal trap. He said he was amazed that, as he placed the net over the bird, it didn’t move and didn’t fight him when he placed it into the trap.
Not knowing what to do next, they called around and were told to call Wingspan, an Oldham County-based rehabilitation program for birds of all types, but specializing in birds of prey.
Chuck and Michele Culp came immediately to the bird’s rescue, taking it to the vet to see what could be done.
In an interview Friday at a farm near Sulphur, where they keep some of the birds they use in education programs and exercise recuperating birds, Chuck Culp said they didn’t think the Heitzmans’ owl was going to survive.
“It was encrusted around the beak, and there were maggots,” he said. “The vet trimmed off” the necrotic tissue and determined that the bird most likely had bitten down on an electrical wire.
“When electricity grabs you, you can’t let go,” Chuck said, and the damage to the bird’s beak and mouth was severe. “It couldn’t eat, and it was down to about 60 percent of its body weight. ... I’m surprised she lived.”
Chuck said that owls don’t have body fat; so, when they can’t eat, their bodies will start ingesting muscle and, later, internal organs in order to survive.
The owl found by the Heitzmans had been starving so long it was very weak and unable to put up a fight when the couple caught it.
Which is a good thing, Chuck said. Horned owls are extremely dangerous. “They have 500 pounds per square inch of pressure in their talons,” enough power to pierce through a human skull, he said, warning: “When they grab something, they don’t let go.”
Michele Culp agreed that the Heitzmans were very lucky. Their owl had to have been near death to surrender so easily, because to survive in the wild, the birds will do everything they can to not display weakness, she said.
The Culps encourage anyone to call them when they find a bird in distress, and warn that no one should approach or try to capture an injured animal – particularly an owl or other raptor – themselves. Wingspan’s phone number is (502) 228-9034 and their e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources also has a statewide list of rehabilitators for mammals and birds on its website: fw.ky.gov/app1/rehablist.aspx.
Culp also warned that, contrary to human instinct, it’s best not to try to give injured or sick birds food or water. Because of the structure of their respiratory system, it’s easy for a bird to aspirate on food or water into the lungs and develop pneumonia.
“You can do more harm than good,” he said.
In the case of the owl found in Campbellsburg, the Culps are very surprised that the owl survived.
“We seriously didn’t think she was going to make it a week,” Chuck said. And often, the birds don’t survive, he said, adding that over the course of a year, they are able to save about 62-65 percent of the birds they help rescue.
On Friday afternoon, Chuck Culp had brought the owl, which is doing well but still having a hard time with the lower section of its beak, out to the farm for exercise. He explained that he couldn’t allow viewing or photos of the bird because of federal wildlife protection laws, which prohibit recovering birds from being shown to the public.
Chuck Culp said that puts too much stress on the wild creature and can compromise its rehabilitation.
So, Culp showed some of the birds they keep at the farm, including a Eurasian buzzard named Euro, who had been given as a gift to someone who couldn’t keep her; Hiawatha, a red-tailed hawk; Ebenezer, a turkey vulture; and Brutus, another great horned owl that had been confiscated from a residence in Anderson County.
Though they hope to release the injured owl within the next few weeks, the other avian residents at this location cannot be, Chuck said. For instance, Ebenezer apparently was hatched in a home because he “imprinted” on humans; he doesn’t realize he’s actually a bird and would not be able to fend for or protect himself.
As he introduced Brutus, their resident horned owl, Chuck explained that the bird had been kept in a cage with a wire-mesh floor. Over time, the bird’s back talons were so badly damaged that it would be impossible for him to hunt because he would be unable to grasp his prey. “He can’t kill without that toe,” Chuck said.
Exercising the birds “is like flying a kite,” Michele Culp said, explaining that they tether the birds with about 200-feet of line and allow them to fly low in open fields. That is why they depend on friends with large farms for exercise areas.
But soon, the couple will be caring for their birds on their own land in Sulphur, where they plan to move their sanctuary.
For about 20 years, they have been rescuing and rehabilitating birds from all over the state, and particularly in Henry, Trimble, Carroll, Owen, Oldham, Shelby, Jefferson and Bullitt counties, as well as the Frankfort area.
But because of rising gas costs and the fact that there is another raptor rescue in Buechel, the Culps plan to concentrate their efforts on the surrounding counties in Northern Kentucky, once their new home is built.
They are hoping that volunteers, perhaps local Boy Scouts, might sign up to help build cages at the new sanctuary, and they plan to do more educational programs in the local schools, Michele said.
For more information on Wingspan, visit WingspanOfKentucky.com online.