|Cooper's hawks are among the raptors treated at the O.C. Bird of Prey Center. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
Chances are, you’ve heard an owl somewhere in town – hooting repeatedly, seemingly from a particular tree. Yet you’ve never been able to spot the owl, try as you may.
It’s probably a great horned owl, Peggy Chase will tell you. It is expert at camouflaging itself in trees. It is a fierce predator, a nighttime hunter with crazy-good vision and powerful talons that can swoop down and snatch prey the size of a skunk off the ground. It can carry three times its weight – it might even be responsible for a missing cat in your neighborhood.
It’s one of seven types of raptors – birds of prey – that reside around Orange County, where sick or injured birds are taken for rehabilitation at the Orange County Bird of Prey Center in Lake Forest.
“The majority of the birds that come through our facility we are able to release back into the wild,” said Chase, the nonprofit center’s lead educator.
Raptors that arrive at the all-volunteer center suffering from disabling injuries or handicaps so severe that they would never survive being released into the wild are either euthanized, cared for permanently or transferred to another facility, Chase told a recent audience at the visitor center of San Clemente State Park.
Certain non-release birds, she said, are trained to be shown to the public for educational purposes, like Gus, a tiny female western screech owl.
“You will never be able to get this close to a raptor unless you volunteer at our center,” Chase told the audience.
Injured when very young, Gus had to be hand-fed by humans and that was her undoing.
“She imprinted on us,” Chase said. “She thinks she is a human. The problem with that is, our parents teach us how to find food ... our parents teach us what to be afraid of. She knows how to kill and she knows how to fly but she doesn’t know how to hunt, and she isn’t afraid of anything.
“If we were to let her go, she wouldn’t survive. She’s not afraid of cars, cats, dogs or humans.
That’s the reason she gets to be trained to come out and do educational presentations.”
The San Onofre Parks Foundation sponsored Chase’s talk “Raptors of Orange County” where people got a close look at diminutive Gus and three larger permanent residents of the center – a burrowing owl, a red-tailed hawk and a great horned owl.
Spartacus, the burrowing owl, is thought to have been hit by a car and cannot fly. Dulce, the red-tailed hawk, also is an injury victim and has imprinted on humans. Tweek, the great horned owl, is brain-damaged from either falling or being pushed from a nest while still a hatchling.
ABOUT THOSE RAPTORS Western screech owls: They don’t screech. Barn owls do. Western screech owls like Gus make a soft whooping sound. “A lot of people don’t like barn owls because of that hideous screech at 3 o’clock in the morning when the young are saying ‘Mom and Dad feed me,’” Chase said. “If that wakes you up and you don’t like it, just remember, one adult barn owl will kill 700 mice a year.”
Where to look: Barn owls can be seen atop ledges, houses, barns and palm trees. Burrowing owls live underground in open areas, a rare habitat today in Orange County. Red-tailed hawks are most often seen soaring. Western screech owls like oak woodlands and canyons.
Along roads: “These birds have learned that we kill things with our cars, and so they hang out next to the freeway or a road,” Chase said. If the roadkill is fresh, they’ll eat it.
Soaring: Hawks, with up to a 5-foot wing span, can spot a rabbit from 5,000 feet up. They will ease down, then go into a stoop, or speed dive, for the meal.
Hawk vs. rattler: “They put their wings out and they flap their wings,” Chase said. “The rattlesnake will strike at their feathers. Then they come around and grab them and kill them in the back.”
Backyard feeders: “Raptors will hang out near bird feeders and wait. They’re eating what you are feeding.”
Falcon vs. duck: “Peregrines are phenomenal hunters,” Chase said. “They can fly up to 200 mph in their stoop, when they are diving down. They can actually hit a duck in mid-air, break its neck and catch it before it hits the ground.”
Crow vs. hawk: “Crows pick on them,” Chase said. “The raptors are a powerful predator and crows don’t want them in their territory. Crows will call over all of their friends to pick on the big guy. They will mob the bird.”
Owl vs. skunk: The great horned owl likes skunks. “When he is diving down, he virtually makes no noise. He is the perfect predator of a skunk because the skunk has no idea he is coming,” Chase said. “These birds have a lousy sense of smell.”
Twirlybird: Owls can turn their head around, all the way behind to the opposite shoulder. “If you are ever able to see a burrowing owl at a burrow, standing on its little perch outside its burrow, don’t get close to it but walk around and around and around,” Chase said. “It will look like it is screwing its head off, because you are a predator and it wants to keep its eye on you.”
Protected: Raptors, now at the lowest population level in Orange County history, are protected by law, Chase said. You can’t have them as pets, harm them or damage nests. You can’t prune a tree in spring if there is an active nest. “Unfortunately, almost every year we get birds in where a branch has been cut off that did have a nest,” Chase said. “We have to try to rehab the young.”
LEARN MORE If you find an injured or ill raptor, call your local animal control. Don’t try to care for it yourself.
See ocbpc.org for info about the center, 949-837-0786.