A pair of great horned Owls poached near the Eastern Oregon town of Helix on Mar 29 has drawn a reward offer of up to $1,000 by the Portland Audubon Society for information that leads to a citation or arrest.
A local resident walking her dog discovered the crime. As Betty Burns walked her dog along a rural road near their home, the black labradoodle hesitated and turned toward the ditch. Betty looked to see what had drawn the dog’s attention. She was disappointed to see a mound of feathers but could not quite make out what kind of bird lay dead in the ditch. It was large. Maybe a hawk. Betty and her dog continued their walk along the rural road.
When they returned, this time walking on the opposite side of the road, the dog stopped again. Betty glanced into the ditch, then took a closer look. She saw the body of a great horned owl. She paused, then quickly crossed the road to look in the ditch on the other side. Yes, there it was, the indistinguishable bird. She could tell it was also a great horned owl.
She pulled out her cell phone and called her husband’s number.
“Jack,” she said, voice trembling, “Come pick me up. You’ve got to see this.”
Jack arrived with the truck. Then husband and wife, looking at both birds, drew the same conclusion.
“I think these are our owls,” Betty said. Jack agreed.
Jack and Betty Burns (Not their real names) had a daily ritual of watching a pair of great horned owls that nested in a giant spruce tree near their house. The raptors would fly in silence, swooping among the trees, then perch on nearby fenceposts to survey the area. They watched through their dining room window as the large birds maneuvered gracefully through the sky and across the landscape every evening, returning to the spruce tree in the early morning hours. Betty described it to friends as their own private National Geographic experience.
The day they discovered the owls near the road, the couple thought both birds had been struck by a vehicle. Jack examined the area around one of the raptors and noticed the bird had fallen next to a utility marker. Talon marks carved in the dirt told a story of struggle and pain. He had another idea: Could they have been shot?
Jack called Blue Mountain Wildlife, a non-profit rescue organization that specializes in rehabilitating raptors and other birds. Lynn Tomkins, the executive director, said she could X-ray the birds for bullets or pellets. Jack put each of the big owls in a bag, placed them carefully in his pickup, and headed to Pendleton.
Blue Mountain Wildlife
Lynn Tomkins and her late husband, Bob, founded Blue Mountain Wildlife in 1990. In the time since, the Tomkins and their team of volunteers have tended more than 10,000 animals- most of them raptors. And most of those raptors were brought in after encountering humans. Whether by electrocution from a powerline, being struck by a car, or becoming entangled in fences or fishing line, the intersections of humans and birds do not fare well for the birds. But the intentional acts of shooting or poisoning birds gives Lynn pause.
“We hear about people shooting raptors for being a menace, when they are actually just doing what raptors do,” she said. “We had one farmer shooting hawks because they were catching mourning doves, and he liked the doves. Others think (raptors) are taking lambs or other livestock, so they poison them. But raptors actually are a farmer’s friend for all the rodent control they provide.”
Owls and hawks have a voracious appetite for mice, voles, rabbits, and other small mammals that impact farmers’ fields. A single baby owl, or owlet, can consume about 9 mice every night. A mated pair of owls will need to catch more than 60 voles and mice each night to feed a brood of seven owlets, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Kurt Licence.
Licence, a senior wildlife biologist, realized a passion for raptors while volunteering and later working at a wildlife rehabilitation center in Arizona. After his first experience handling a bird of prey he was instantly, and forever enamored. Now he advises Oregonians on how to live in harmony with the predator birds.
“One of the many benefits of raptors, and particularly owls, is that they consume a tremendous number of animals often considered a nuisance, like rodents,” he said. “They are also an excellent indicator of ecosystem health because they are at the top of the food chain and can act as a “canary in the coal mine”. If raptor numbers decline, we know that the small mammals and birds they depend on for food (and the vegetation their prey depends on) may also be unhealthy.”
He is the first to say that there are a range of emotions around raptors, especially when they threaten game birds and pets. But they are also are an important part of the natural landscape and can uplift human spirits.
“Throughout time they have inspired passion and awe across countless cultures,” he said, “They truly are magnificent creatures.”
The Burns’ use the same language to describe the great horned owls from their spruce tree.
Within an hour of returning home from Blue Mountain Wildlife, Jack received a call from Tomkins: Both owls had been shot. That was the likely cause of death. They had been poached.
“It was like a gut punch,” Jack said.
He and Betty tried to piece together a possible chain of events. They think the larger owl, likely the female, had been perched during the night on a low utility marker. It would have been watching for rodents near the road. Then someone drove up and caught the owl in their headlights, aimed a gun and fired. The owl did not die instantly. It dug grooves in the hard ground with its talons as it struggled. They think the mate came to investigate and was also shot. It fell dead on the opposite side of the road.
Now they worry that poachers are operating at night near their residence. They reached out to neighbors to see if anyone saw or heard anything, but no one had. However, one of their neighbors said that a pair of owls nesting on their land was down to a single owl. The mate had not been seen for over a week.
ODFW Stop Poaching Campaign coordinator Yvonne Shaw agrees that poaching laws extend beyond game animals to all wildlife.
“People think of poaching as involving big game animals, fish and upland birds. But these raptors are protected,” she said, “They are environmentally and culturally important. Poachers steal from all Oregonians. This poacher removed a treasured experience from residents, not to mention a valuable aid for farmers.”
Go online to learn more information about Blue Mountain Wildlife.