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Picking up or receiving a live owl
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The law is on your side
Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 it is perfectly legal for anyone to catch a wild bird or have one in their possession, provided that their sole intention is to release it as soon as it is deemed capable of survival. Passing it on so that a more experienced person can rehabilitate and release it is perfectly acceptable. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 anyone who looks after a wild bird has a duty of care and must not cause it to suffer, or take any action, other than justifiable euthanasia, that causes it to become unreleasable.
Should the owl be picked up at all?
Any owl that is easily approachable is either very young or there is something wrong with it. A grounded owl is also very likely to be killed by a predator or scavenger. The advice sometimes given is to ‘leave well alone' and, in the case of very young owls, people are sometimes concerned that if they touch the bird its parents will reject it. Owls have little sense of smell and will not reject their young simply because they have been handled. Provided that your intentions are good, and it is safe to do so, an easy-to-approach owl should always* be picked up. As long as you are reasonably gentle, picking it up will not cause any further injury.
*Please Note: Most of the young owls picked up by members of the public in Britain are young Tawny Owls. If you know that the owlet you have just found is definitely a Tawny (see link >) and you are reasonably confident that it is not injured, starving or too young to be out of the nest, you should find the highest large tree-branch that you can reach nearby and place the bird there rather than take it away. Unlike Barn Owls, Tawny Owl adults will feed their young wherever they are, so there is usually no need to return such birds to the nest. For detailed information on dealing with young Tawny Owls please refer to ‘What to do if you find a young Tawny Owl' (see link >).
Important note: If you have seen a nestling/fledgling Barn Owl on the ground IT MUST BE PICKED UP. Young Barn Owls that have fallen from the nest are generally ignored by the adults and will die if they are not put back in the nest. If you are certain that it is healthy and not underweight please put it back in the nest following the instructions in the leaflet 'What to do if you find a young Barn Owl' (see link >). It is always advisable to check the owls condition before returning it to the nest. Please continue reading this page and then check it over using the next page; 'A do-it-yourself guide to assessing an owl’s condition' (the website navigation system on the left < enables you to select webpages). If you are not sure whether you should be attempting any of this please read the page 'Should I pass the owl on? Making the right decision'. In a situation where nobody is willing/able to check the owls condition and get it back in the nest please go to the page 'How to find a local bird-experienced vet or rehabilitator'.
How should the owl be picked up?
If the owl is lively do not try to pick it up from the front unless you are wearing puncture-resistant gloves (i.e. thin leather). Without gloves you could try gently throwing a towel or something similar over it and let it grip the towel while you try to get your hands around it from behind. Inactive owls are usually easy to pick up, but you should still use the most effective method.
Gently grasp the owl from behind so that your thumbs lie together on its back (up its spine), your fingers fully encircle its folded wings and its legs extend outwards between your fingers. If you need to hold the bird for some time and it appears very docile you may change your grip but always keep control of the feet - they can do more damage than the beak.
What should the owl be contained in?
The ideal container is a solid-sided pet carrier with a large folded towel inside for the bird to grip. A secure cardboard box, roughly 30 cm x 30 cm x 60 cm, with a towel in and a few ventilation holes, is fine. If the only container available has wire mesh sides, it would be best to cut some card to size and fix on the inside (to create solid sides) in order to minimise the chance of feather damage.
The owl in its container should be kept somewhere quiet and at room temperature or slightly warmer. If the bird can see out of the container through anything larger than a small hole, it may become unduly stressed and may keep struggling to get out. Draping something over the container will usually pacify it. Be careful not to chill or overheat the owl and avoid keeping it anywhere it is more likely to dehydrate. An owl that has, or is likely to have, a major bone fracture (such as a broken wing) may worsen its injury if it is allowed to move about too much. Such birds should not be kept in any over-sized container and should, if possible, be wrapped in something like a large towel or possibly placed in a loosely-woven hessian sack or similar. Remember that the owl must be able to breathe and must not become tangled. Close confinement such as this does increase the risk of hyperthermia (over-heating) but in most cases, lightly wrapping a badly-damaged owl (or placing it in a slightly under-sized container) will be beneficial unless the ambient temperature is high. Irrespective of its condition and the amount of wrapping, make sure that the container is closed securely - the owl may become mobile at any moment.
What if the owl is tangled or trapped?
Owls sometimes become tangled in soft netting. Disentanglement can be extremely difficult; if necessary the netting around it should be cut and the bird quickly passed to an experienced vet or rehabilitator for the netting to be removed. Chances of a full recovery are reasonable. Owls are sometimes found hanging on barbed wire. Usually one or more barbs have punctured the wing between bone and tendon and a prolonged struggle results in severe tangling, major soft -tissue damage, multiple puncture wounds and quite often a wing fracture as well. Cutting the wire does not usually help and untangling on-site, although difficult, is the usual procedure. Badly damaged victims should receive immediate veterinary attention but even so a full recovery is extremely unlikely. Owls often become trapped in chimneys and have to be extracted via a removable panel in the flue or removal of part of the stove or fire surround. This happens far more often to Tawny Owls than Barn Owls and they usually make a full recovery. Barn Owls and Little Owls sometimes become trapped in water troughs. A rescued bird that has been struggling in water for a while will very likely be exhausted, hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar) and hypothermic (low body heat). Such birds should first be warmed up, then given warm water with glucose (see link >), then dried off. While allowing the owl to dry-off, be careful to avoid chilling or dehydrating it.
Recording the circumstances in which the owl was found
It is crucially important to record exactly where the owl was found, ideally using a six-figure grid reference plus other information on the finding circumstances, such as how long it might have been there, if there is a known nest nearby, if it is a road casualty or if there was some other danger nearby such as overhead wires. Also record the finding date and contact details of the finder. When passing the bird on to a vet or rehabilitator, always ensure that all this information goes with it. When choosing the best option for a bird's release, knowledge of the finding circumstances is vitally important. Check both ankles to see if the owl is ringed. Always report a BTO-ringed bird yourself rather than assuming that someone else will do it (please follow the link >).
Note: Information on various types of bird rings may be found at http://blx1.bto.org/euring/lang/pages/rings.jsp?country=EN
If the owl is obviously injured or you are unable to assess it yourself, you should contact a bird-experienced vet or a bird rehabilitator that day or first thing the next morning (see link >). Although most vets do not charge for treating wildlife casualties, it is always advisable to ask.