Nancy Owen & Night Creatures at Hunting Island

Nancy “Maudy” Owen is currently caring for four owls and three bats, all part of Turtle Spring Farm which is “devoted to the care, rehabilitation and release of injured, orphaned or sick raptors and bats and to the education of humans regarding the importance of predators in nature.” This program, “Creatures of the Night Plus One” at the Hunting Island Nature Center was definitely an education. Zephyr (Great Horned Owl), Jodie (Barred Owl), Mayday (Screech Owl), Whisper (Screech Owl) and three Big Brown Bats must each complete twelve programs  per year in order for Nancy to retain her license to care for them. These wild animals are protected by both the U.S. Federal Government and the state government.

“When we get birds in that are injured, sick or orphaned, we do whatever it takes to get them healed and back out into the wild,” Nancy assures the audience. The animals used in this program are not able to survive in the wild, but she does have a 25-40% release rate. Many of the birds, including hawks, owls, shore and game birds were injured by cars or barbed wire. Disease like West Nile affects birds and bats, and bats are suffering from White Nose Syndrome. She gets so many birds that they cannot treat and release them all, and an animal cannot be released unless it is 100% healed and able to care for itself. Nancy must also pay for her education license and do the required number of programs. Supporting the birds is very costly as it requires a veterinary certificate and caging including the proper number of perches. Veterinary care includes vaccinations, blood work and a yearly checkup. At the end of the year, she sends in a rehabilitation report and a program report. She is inspected every other year by a South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Officer who is familiar with the regulations.  

Did you find an eagle feather on the ground? Don’t tell anyone. Feathers that you find on the ground and all of Nancy’s educational props require a license.  Birds of prey are protected under the Eagle Feather Law which states that you are not allowed to have any part of a bird of prey unless you are licensed by the Federal Government and the state government because there is no proof that you did not actually kill (poach) the bird to obtain the feather. It is even illegal to own any migratory bird. For educational programs, Nancy uses feathers and the preserved feet and wings of owls and other birds, but all of her props were donors from road kill. Another drawback to being in her field: “Nobody rides in my car with me anymore because I pick up fresh road kill!”

As Nancy and Amanda Wood (program specialist at Hunting Island) were describing molting feathers, a restless owl was thumping away in her carrier on the table. Jodie burst from her enclosure and flew across the room upon release. For just this reason, the audience was warned to keep the door shut during the presentation. Jodie is a Barred Owl, which is from the same family as the Spotted Owl and the Great Grey Owl.  She is in Nancy’s permanent care because of a crooked beak. Jodie demonstrated how owls can move their head in a 170 degree turn because they have twice as many vertebra as we do. Owls stare straight ahead because they cannot move their eyes- instead they move their heads to the right and left so quickly that a myth was created. No, owls cannot turn their heads completely around on an axis, but we still see it depicted in cartoons.

The Great Horned Owl, Zephyr, was unfortunately adopted by children after falling out of his nest. The interference made him an imprint: He does not know how to interact with other owls, does not recognize aggression or proper social behavior when another owl is being territorial, and he does not know how to hunt. In the wild, Great Horned Owls eat smaller owls, but when Zephyr was introduced to a Barn Owl, he did not act like a predator; he wanted to make friends. Nancy says Zephyr is the most likely to show subtle signs of affection for people. The owls are tame with their handlers, but for the most part she says, “These guys put up with us.”

Both of Nancy’s Eastern Screech Owls do not wear anklets to keep them from flying. When she puts anklets on the birds, they simply take them off! Whisper is a Rufous morph (red) of the Eastern Screech Owl. The color allows him to blend in with Red Cedar trees, and for this reason, they were most prevalent in the South. “Now Red Cedars are starting to move further north and these little birds are following. That’s one of the places they like to nest.” His eyes pop out and are topped with long, adorable eyelashes, and he blinks them slowly like a cartoon character. He does this because of light sensitivity. Screech owl eyes are solid black for the best night vision: they bounce light off their retinas twice while we do only once, and they see in wonderful colors. The companion Screech Owl, Mayday, is a gray morph. Mayday prefers to keep his eyes closed and fluff his feathers.

Big Brown Bats are threatened by a disease called White Nose Syndrome which is a cold weather fungus that wakes them up during hibernation and causes them to use up two weeks of precious energy. Amanda explains that we do not know if it’s the fungus that kills them or if they are just running out of energy.  They can lower their heart rate by 25 beats per minute and lower their respiration during hibernation which gives an uninfected bat a long lifespan. A bat was found in a cave in Russia, and he was banded 42 years ago!

One of Nancy’s bats took a very graceful flight three times around the room, but the audience was told not to be alarmed. Bats can echolocate something as fine as a hair, so they won’t fly into your hair like you see in the movies. If they do fly near you, they are trying to catch a bug, “and maybe it just saved you from West Nile Virus.” If a bat flies into your house, open all the windows and doors and stand in the corner. They will use echolocation to find their way out. They can send out an echolocation sound 800 times a minute, and their brains process it faster than that coming back. One little guy named Batman got a broken wing when he flew into a house. You can see the bats vibrating in the soft gloves of the handlers. “When they are happy and content, they purr just like a kitten.”

These are crevice-dwelling bats. Most will fly to a bat cave to hibernate. They need a place with a constant temperature, not necessarily a warm place. Big Brown Bats eat 7-9000 insects per day: “Bats save OH farmers 43 million dollars, so if we lose our bats, our farmers are in trouble.” Bat boxes can be put up to shelter the animals. In South Carolina, they must be at least 15 feet off the ground and face east. If you live close to the wetlands and you have a mosquito problem, put up bat boxes. Nancy’s bats come back the first part of April and have their babies at a maternity colony in the first part of June. “We spend about two weeks doing baby rescue; they crawl around and fall onto our hay, and we put ‘em back up. They’re cute as can be.” They leave early in October. Nancy uses the guano that falls on the plastic sheet to fertilize her plants.