When these Barn Owls were spotted, seemingly grooving to the funky beat up in the rafters at the Church of 8 Wheels, a roller disco in San Francisco, they looked like real party animals!
But when Melanie, WildCare's Director of Animal Care and a frequent patron of the skating rink, saw the post on her Facebook feed, she knew that the owls were actually in dire need of rescue.
You can see the video posted on Facebook here (will open in Facebook). If you look at the caption and the comments below it, it's clear that everyone loves the owls, and that most people think the head-bobbing means the birds are "enjoying" the music.
Melanie messaged the rollerskating rink, built in an old church in San Francisco's Fillmore District, alerting them to the fact that the owls weren't, in fact, "dancing," and that they must be trapped in the building.
Barn Owls have incredibly sensitive hearing and eyesight. A Barn Owl can hear the patter of a field mouse's feet up to a football field's length away! The disc of feathers around the owl's face funnels sound to his asymmetrical ears, allowing him to triangulate on prey.
The owls’ head-bobbing might look like dancing, but it is actually the owls trying to make sense of their surroundings while contending with the assault of the loud disco music, voices and flashing lights. The birds had been stuck in the building for at least five days, possibly longer, making the need to rescue them all the more dire.
Aware of the expansive domed ceilings of the roller rink, which is actually an old Catholic church (see photo of the interior), WildCare staff knew that a specialist was needed in order to have any hope of capturing these fully-flighted birds. We contacted our friend Craig at Bay Raptor Rescue and thankfully he was up to the challenge.
It took another two days to gain access to the building after-hours, and then a total of nine trips into San Francisco and seven trapping sessions to get the Barn Owls! Craig was determined, and he wouldn't give up — he knew that after at least a week without food and water, the owls’ chances of survival were dwindling.
He finally captured the two owls and rushed them to WildCare's Wildlife Hospital.
Once the owls were in the Wildlife Hospital, intake exams were grim.
These beautiful birds had been starving. They were dangerously emaciated, and were so severely dehydrated that our medical staff could not even extract a blood sample. Had they been trapped indoors another day or two, it probably would have been too late for both of them.
The birds were placed in an oxygen incubator and given IV fluids and tube feedings multiple times a day. Sadly, one of the trapped birds was, in fact, too far gone and, despite great efforts by our Medical Staff, he passed away on the second day of care.
After the owls’ capture, Bay Raptor Rescue and WildCare continued to check in with the rink to make sure that they were actively identifying and boarding up the numerous holes in various steeple windows. The surviving owl would be released back to her territory once she had recovered, and we wanted to make sure that she didn’t end up back inside the building again.
Then, shocking all of us, Craig received another call from the rink— a THIRD owl was now stuck inside the building!
It's not entirely clear why the owls couldn't escape the building once they were in. Barn Owls are cavity nesters, and they will enthusiastically investigate any opening that might make a good nesting site. Our guess is that the holes are easily seen from outside, but, once the owl is inside, the stained glass windows obscure the entry points, making it impossible to find the exit.
This owl was new to this predicament, and not yet as weak and tired as the first two, so he was much harder to capture. It took Craig another three trips to the city before he was able to trap the owl and bring him to WildCare.
This bird was in much better health, having only been trapped for a few days. Our team gave him fluids, and he was able to eat a regular whole-food diet rather than being tube fed.
By this time, the original owl had regained her strength and, the following day, we moved both owls to an outdoor aviary together. Meanwhile, the rink property owner finished patching up all entry points into the building.
Jacqueline Lewis, Hungry Owl Project Manager, met with Craig and the rink property owner to do a final assessment of the property to ensure all entry points were, in fact, sealed off, and to evaluate the potential for placing an owl nesting box at the location.
While we would not normally place an owl box at the top of a building in a downtown city area, clearly many Barn Owls do live in this area, and they need safe nesting locations in order to continue to provide free rodent eradication for the city! (Fun fact: Did you know a family of Barn Owls can eat 3,000 rodents in a single breeding season?)
Once the building work was complete and the owls were ready for release, we made arrangements for Anne Ardillo, long-time WildCare and Golden Gate Raptor Observatory volunteer, to band the owls before release.
Anne is licensed by both the U.S. and California Departments of Fish & Wildlife to band raptors, and in the video below you can see her measuring the bird's leg to determine the properly-sized band, and also doing other measurements to collect scientific data. The bands will help identify these individual birds if they are ever found again. One of our WildCare team narrates the owls' story in the background of the video.
The other video shows the now-healthy owls in their enclosure the day before release.
The first owl had been in care at WildCare for a full 21 days, and the newest patient for 13. It was now time to get these owls back home.
The steps to the belfry of the church were so steep and narrow that the owl box had to be taken up in pieces and assembled on the roof, an adventure Craig and his team tackled. See photos below.
On the morning of release, Melanie drove the birds from WildCare to San Francisco and met Craig and the rink property owner. Climbing the labyrinth of steps to the tower with the owls and their food, Melanie and Craig set up cameras and carefully removed the owls from their carriers and placed them in their new box (with defrosted mice already waiting for them inside). See photos and video below, and admire that amazing view!
The owls were secured inside the box for the day to allow them to relax and get used to their new home. Then, later that night, Craig climbed all those stairs again to remove the owl box's front door shield so that the owls could come and go as they please.
So far camera traps show that at least one of the owls has been returning to the box regularly! See the gallery of black and white trail cam photos below.
Story continues below...
So much time and effort went into making this situation right. We are so grateful for Bay Raptor Rescue and their tenacity, generosity and expertise, and to Anne from Golden Gate Raptor Observatory for banding the birds.
We're also so grateful to the staff and property manager at the Church of 8 Wheels for letting Craig in so many times to capture the owls, and for being willing to repair their building and host an owl box!
Keep an eye out for a future fundraising collaboration with The Church of 8 Wheels to raise funds for WildCare and for Bay Raptor Rescue's amazing work!
Finally, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize (ascribe human qualities to) wild animals like these owls, but we have to try to remember—and appreciate—how different they are from us, despite our desire to connect with them.
If you find a bird or other wild animal who is trapped indoors, please act quickly and find qualified help. It could be the difference between life and death for the animal.
WildCare's Living with Wildlife Hotline is an excellent resource. Call us at 415-456-7283.
Story by Melanie Piazza, Dion Campbell and Alison Hermance