Great Horned Owl #22-0137: a Story of Determination, Ingenuity, and Perserverance

On the evening of February 22, 2022, Front Desk Supervisor Michael Adkins received a phone call from a member of the public concerning a grounded Great Horned Owl with a possible wing injury. While front desk staff at the Wildlife Center regularly offer advice over the phone on how to help wildlife, rescuing an injured animal is almost always completed by members of the public or other wildlife professionals. Circumstances were slightly different for this particular owl, though.

Michael received the phone call just before closing hours. Serendipitously, the callers were located in an area that was along his commute home. Rather than waiting to organize a rescue attempt, Michael decided to respond to the scene personally.

The original finders, the Seilheimer family of Charlottesville, met Michael at their home and drove him in a small off-road vehicle to where the injured owl was last seen. “It was very sad,” Nora Seilheimer shared while recounting the event, “it couldn’t fly and scampered into the woods and hid near an old stump.” The rescue itself was successful and relatively uneventful, and the owl was soon admitted to the Wildlife Center of Virginia as patient #22-0137.

During the owl’s intake exam, few obvious signs of injury were observed. The owl was bright and alert, had no palpable broken or fractured bones, no clear signs of bruising or physical trauma, and no issues with its eyesight. A series of radiographs showed mostly normal results – with the exception of slight irregularities to the owl’s right metacarpus (wrist). Veterinary staff deduced that these irregularities may have been signs of an old injury that resulted in nerve damage and that a newer fracture was not yet visible on radiographs. The patient’s prognosis was initially determined to be “guarded”, as physical therapy is not always guaranteed to heal nerve-related injuries.

By March 2, Great Horned Owl #22-0137’s condition had plateaued. Veterinary staff had been regularly performing physical therapy and laser therapy to help facilitate the natural healing process, but the possibility of this owl’s full recovery was still in question. On this day, the veterinary staff were forced to make a decision – continue treating the owl and introduce new elements — such as administering different medications — to its existing plan of care, or make the difficult choice to humanely euthanize the patient. Center veterinarians chose the former.

Three months later, the owl was in need of physical conditioning; however, the condition of its feathers was not conducive to flight in an outdoor enclosure. On June 28, veterinary staff performed a procedure known as “imping”– physically implanting feathers from a different Great Horned Owl into the follicles of Great Horned Owl #22-0137.

While the procedure was considered to be successful, after recovering, the owl was not able to achieve silent flight during physical exercise – a crucial component of an owl’s ability to successfully hunt in the wild, and a requirement for all owl species to be considered fully rehabilitated at the Wildlife Center.

Rather than attempt another imping procedure, veterinary staff determined the best course of action would be to wait for the owl’s new feathers to grow in naturally while simultaneously administering different medications to help stimulate feather growth.

Eventually, levothyroxine — a steroidal medication that increases the natural production of growth hormones– showed some of the most positive results after being administered with the owl’s meals over a period of 34 consecutive days. On May 15, Director of Veterinary Services Dr. Karra documented a promising observation on the owl’s patient record: "Molting!" Birds' feathers are comprised of mostly keratin, the same protein found in human hair and fingernails. Molting is the gradual process during which old feathers are shed and replaced with new ones.

The owl’s successful molt allowed rehabilitation staff to begin a flight conditioning regimen to improve the bird’s physical strength and stamina, and nearly one year and seven months after being admitted, this owl had fully recovered, and was cleared for release back into the wild! Front Desk Supervisor Michael quickly contacted the Seilheimer family and organized a release on their property that took place on September 13, 2023.

"I was very fortunate," expressed Michael, "to be in a position where I could help both an animal in need and a family who cares deeply about their local wildlife and environment."

The treatment and rehabilitation of wildlife at the Center is different for each and every individual animal. Some patients return to their natural habitats mere days after their admission; others, like this Great Horned Owl, are faced with a long and arduous recovery.

No matter the species, the severity of their injuries, or the complexity of their care, a common factor is present – the staff, students, volunteers, and supporters of the Wildlife Center of Virginia are tenacious in making a positive difference in the world of wildlife and environmental conservation, one patient at a time.