Fixing a Great Horned Owl’s Feathers

Feather Imping on a Great Horned Owl

Badly damaged flight feathers are a death sentence for bird like this Great Horned Owl. If he couldn't fly or hunt, this owl would starve.

The bird was brought to our sister center, Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue (SCWR), after being found on the ground. Although feisty and aggressive, the bird had an injured wing, and damage to his feathers that, despite staff's efforts, only got worse during his time in care.

The wonderful staff at SCWR healed the owl's injuries, but nothing a medical team can do will cause an owl to regrow damaged feathers.

Great Horned Owls molt once a year, usually after their young have fledged and the demands on their resources are lower. Flight feathers usually molt one at a time, with healthy feathers regrowing to replace tattered or broken ones. It's a slow process, however, and keeping this aggressive and active bird in an aviary until the feathers could regrow was simply not an option.

Fortunately, WildCare's Veterinarian Dr. Juliana Sorem, and our Wildlife Technician Jacqueline Lewis have learned the specialized skill of feather imping, a process that replaces damaged feathers on a live bird with healthy feathers from a deceased one. SCWR transferred the bird to WildCare for the procedure.

"Imping" (short for implantation) is a skill that comes from falconry and dates back hundreds of years. Feathers from a deceased bird are trimmed and attached to the carefully-prepared feather shafts of a living bird with epoxy. In practice, the process is something like getting hair extensions or fake nails, but, unlike with a manicure, the bird's survival relies on the feathers functioning as well as the originals. Doing an imping procedure right is a painstaking and time-consuming process.

How to Imp

First, suitable replacement feathers have to be found. WildCare admits 10 - 20 Great Horned Owl patients every year, and when an adult bird doesn't survive his or her injuries and dies in care, Medical Staff will often harvest the feathers for just such a situation. (This is true of many raptor species— imping works on hawks too!) We had recently lost a hit-by-car Great Horned Owl patient who had beautiful feathers. That bird became the donor to help this one.

Most of this owl's flight feathers were damaged and needed replacement, so the procedure was going to take a couple of hours. As with all of WildCare's patients, Great Horned Owls are high-stress, and keeping the bird restrained during the procedure wasn't possible without anesthesia. Dr. Sorem intubated the bird, and she and Jacqueline monitored the owl's breathing and heartbeat throughout the procedure.

The donor feathers are carefully catalogued in their proper order (see photo above), and starting on one wing, the team carefully trims the damaged feather away, leaving just the feather shaft which is embedded in the bone of the wing. The donor feather is also trimmed, and a thin piece of light wood is inserted into the shaft to serve as a splint between the old feather shaft and the new feather.

After carefully placing wax paper over the other feathers to protect them from any contact with the epoxy, the epoxy-tipped end of the donor feather and shaft is inserted into the existing shaft and held to allow the epoxy to set.This process is repeated for all the feathers.

Because of the risks of long-term anesthesia, Dr. Sorem and Jacqueline decided to do one wing one day, and then wait for a couple of days to allow the bird to rest and recover before imping the other wing.

The procedure (as you can see in the time-lapse video above was a great success! Below is a short clip of the owl's wing with the new feathers in place.

After a week under observation at WildCare, the owl was transferred back to SCWR where they have the perfect aviaries for an owl to rebuild his strength and try out his new feathers.

The video below, taken by SCWR staff, show's the owl's very first flight attempt with his new feathers. Although the flight is low, you can see that the bird has good lift and excellent control of his wings. He's still weak from his convalescence (flying is hard work and takes a lot of strength!) but with a couple of weeks of strength-building, he will be released back to the wild very soon!

And what will happen with the imped feathers? He'll shed them during his molt, just as he would have done with his natural feathers. This owl should be able to live a full and healthy life in the wild.




  1. dale on August 9, 2018 at 2:20 pm

    It is so wonderful that you have developed this “surgery,” and it’s pretty amazing! The time-lapse video, though, is SO very fast that it’s impossible to actually take in the details of the work you did on this guy’s wings! Please consider making these in-process videos a little slower and longer? Thank you 🙂

    • Alison Hermance on August 9, 2018 at 4:44 pm

      Thanks Dale! We were torn between a longer video, which loses viewers, or the faster pace. The entire procedure took almost two hours, so we don’t have that whole video available, but this one is slightly slower and shows a bit more detail. Enjoy!

      • Steve on August 9, 2018 at 11:13 pm

        I totally agree with Alison. She is not suggesting that you show the entire two hours. But a single minute of real-time would be very helpful. I too am most curious as to how you add these feathers. Will you consider adding a third video that is a one minute segment of the original two hour video. I think many of us would love to see it.

        • Alison Hermance on August 10, 2018 at 2:48 pm

          Great suggestion! It’s going to require some editing, so please check back 🙂

          • Alison Hermance on August 14, 2018 at 5:33 pm

            Hi all, here is the slowed-down version of the video (also included at the bottom of the page above):
            So many people asked for a slightly longer version that shows more detail, so here it is! Note that this is still a little speeded-up (it’s a slow process!)

  2. NORMA CAMPBELL on August 9, 2018 at 2:26 pm


  3. Lisa Hoytt on August 9, 2018 at 3:21 pm

    Thank you Dr. Sorem! This is absolutely amazing and wonderful. We owe this life saving technique to our beautiful owls
    as they navigate our world of autos and construction. All residents of California should donate to wild care facilities.

  4. JENNIFER OSNER on August 9, 2018 at 3:44 pm

    the work you do is so amazing!

  5. Glenda Corning on August 9, 2018 at 3:57 pm

    I enjoyed this behind-the-scenes look at one of the creative ways you solve health issues for our wild charges.
    Thank you.

  6. joann butkus on August 9, 2018 at 4:23 pm

    you are THE BEST!!! KUDOS TO THE TEAM!!

  7. Sue Coulson on August 9, 2018 at 5:16 pm

    Wonderful technique! I would like a bit more information, however, on how the owl sheds the imped feathers that are afixed with epoxy? The the shaft shed too?

    • Alison Hermance on August 9, 2018 at 5:39 pm

      Good question Sue! The owl actually sheds the entire feather, shaft and all, and grows an entirely new one in its place. In the imping process, the shaft from the damaged feather serves as the base for the replacement feather, so when that shaft molts, the imped feather goes with it. A new, healthy feather will grow in its place.

  8. Judith Gottesman on August 9, 2018 at 6:21 pm


  9. Pat Harris on August 9, 2018 at 9:39 pm

    Congratulations to the hard working and dedicated team. We need to hear more stories of animals being helped and not abused. Thank you for helping this owl to live.

  10. Michelle R Liberati on August 21, 2018 at 7:52 pm

    So amazing and educational! Your videos always teach me something new, and this imping process is the most incredible one yet. to read that the process has been around for hundreds of years gives me respect for the resourcefulness of our ancestors. Hugs to Dr.
    Sorem and Jacqueline Lewis for generously sharing their skills on behalf of our wildlife. How you must love your work!