Who gives a hoot? Fermilab does

FESS’ Will Alvarez and Steve Whiteaker rescued this injured owl near the Industrial Center Building. Photo: Marie Herman, TD

Last month a handful of Fermilab employees took part in the laboratory’s first owl rescue.

It began one afternoon when the Industrial Center Building called the Roads and Grounds Department to report that an owl had been hanging around the building all morning.

“It’s very uncommon to see an owl out during the day,” said FESS’ Dave Shemanske. “That was the first clue that something was wrong.”

So Will Alvarez and Steve Whiteaker of FESS brought a net and box to the building with hopes of catching the owl to check its health. They found the owl easily enough sitting on the ground, but catching it was a different story—especially since this was a great horned owl, one of the larger owl species.

“Will tried to sneak up behind the owl while I distracted it,” Whiteaker said. “But owls can turn their heads almost completely around, so we couldn’t catch it from behind because it kept flying away when it saw either of us.”

Because it was injured, the owl could only fly a distance of 40 to 50 feet at a time. Since it never went too far to follow, Whiteaker and Alvarez continued their pursuit.

“It was like when you drop a piece of paper on a windy day and you go to pick it up and the wind blows it away,” Whiteaker said.

After half an hour, the owl cornered itself between two buildings, giving Whiteaker and Alvarez the opportunity they needed. Careful of the owl’s large, sharp talons, they caught the bird. Alfonso Castillo of the Transportation Services Department took the owl to the Willowbrook Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

Willowbrook discovered that the owl was malnourished, dehydrated and suffered from a broken pelvis—in other words, it was in need of treatment.

“Everyone out here at Fermilab seems to be aware of the environment and wildlife,” Shemanske said. “If it weren’t for the people who first reported the owl’s location, we would not have rescued it.”

The owl is now on the road to recovery at Willowbrook and showing great promise: It is eating well, perching well and flying in longer spurts. Shemanske said that it will soon be ready for release into the wild, and he’s asked Willowbrook to return the owl to Fermilab. That way he can release it back into Big Woods—the wooded region close to where Whiteaker and Alvarez caught the bird.

“Some of the lab’s bird monitors noticed a pair of great horned owls in the same area this bird was found, and so we think it might be part of that pair,” Shemanske said. “Therefore, we’d like to release the bird back to familiar territory where it may have a partner awaiting its return.”

Jessica Orwig

Once FESS’ Will Alvarez and Steve Whiteaker rescued the owl, they gave it a comfortable box in which to rest. Alfonso Castillo, Transportation Services Department, transported it to the Willowbrook Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Photo: Steve Whiteaker, FESS