The Owls Are Not What They Seem

November 04, 1990

Three immature screech owls were lucky to have found themselves this summer and fall in the hands of Harford resident Art Simon, a licensed raptor rehabilitation expert.

The screech owls, two red phase owls and one grey owl, had been found abandoned -- one of them was found being carried around by a Labrador retriever.

Only those with raptor rehabilitation licenses are allowed under state and federal laws to handle or be in possession of birds of prey. Violating these laws, which restrict possession of dead or live raptors, carries heavy fines.

Simon advises minimal handling of an immature or injured bird if you find one, and then calling the local Department of Natural Resources office. They will direct callers to licensed professionals such as Simon.

Simon's work with raptors is purely on a volunteer basis and has no profit incentive, he says. But he gets great enjoyment out of working with the birds.

"Some of the birds I work with are on the threatened and endangered list," says Simon. "They have a great significance to our environment and they balance the rodent population in the wild. That's all they eat practically, and they don't damage crops." He's worked with hawks, falcons and a wide range of owls. He keeps immature and injured raptors brought to him in a special pen he's built in a barn on a farm near Havre de Grace.

His first job with the three screech owls was to coax them into attacking their natural prey, rodents, so they could feed.

"When I first put a rodent in a pen, they were scared of it," says Simon, 31. "So you give them a small mouse and gradually increase them in size.

They are clumsy the first time they go after it and sometimes get bitten by the mouse. Soon they learn to grab behind the head and hind quarters."

The three owls Simon has been working with since early summer are about ready to be released back into the wild, says Simon, and he will probably do that in the next few weeks.

The owls now weigh between 5.6 ounces and 6.4 ounces, are about 6 inches tall and have a wing span of about 18 inches. Screech owls are very common in the county.

Things Simon says are neat to know about owls: Their eyesight in the dark is 100 percent keener than humans. The nocturnal birds of prey have ears which are asymmetrical -- one points up and one down, to allow for taking in sound at different angles. The owl's brain uses the sounds to form a map-like grid to track their prey. It is still unclear how they distinguish between a leaf blowing and a mouse. When they fly, their feathers are structured to reflect sound back to the ears and they also don't make any sound when they fly. As for their heads, they can turn around 180 degrees due to an extra vertebrae in the neck.

Says Simon: "They are very interesting in terms of their abilities as a hunter. They're the ultimate predator."

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