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Skin Grafts and Creancing Allow Great Horned Owl to be Released

September 9, 2014

Morro Bay, CA, September 1, 2014—Pacific Wildlife Care will be releasing this evening a Great Horned Owl found over a year ago in Arroyo Grande entangled in a barbed wire fence. The bird’s rescuer was able to cut the small section of fence around which the bird’s right wing was wrapped and bring the bird to the clinic. Known as 13-757, the bird sustained a significant injury to the wing web, while struggling to free himself. During this fight to escape, the owl’s wing web skin had become tightly wound around the barb, tearing the skin. This is a fairly common injury for birds of prey, especially great horned owls, presumably because they don’t see the wire or the barbs.  When this occurs, the struggle cuts off the blood supply to the wing, and in most such cases, the bird does not survive.

Medications were added to Owl 13-757’s food, and daily dressings were applied to the open wound created by his struggle with the fence. Two weeks later, Dr. Shannon Riggs, the fulltime wildlife veterinarian for Pacific Wildlife Care, performed an artificial tissue graft. When this first product failed, another type of artificial tissue was attempted, and this did stimulate the growth of new blood vessels and healing. Scar tissue would have interfered with the full extension of his wings, prohibiting release to the wild. Luckily, the wound healed without scar tissue.

However, this was just the beginning of this owl’s journey toward release. There was still a significant degree of muscle and other soft tissue trauma that wasn’t readily apparent. There was also feather damage, both from the original entanglement in the barbed wire and from confinement in a small space during the healing process. The owl was able to fly short distances, but only with a great deal of effort and not with the silent, gliding flight that a great horned owl needs to be able to hunt prey in the dark.

Upgrades were made to our raptor holding aviaries to prevent further feather damage. Volunteers worked weekly to take the bird out for exercise on a “creance” line. This is a lightweight line attached to a leather strap around the bird’s leg, allowing him to exercise by flying longer distances than were possible in our small flight cages. The owl showed small improvement each time. It took months of patience and persistence, but his beautiful bird is finally able to return to his wild life.



Great Horned Owl injured when struggling to free itself from barbed wire fence


After two grafts and months of healing



Creance: flying to build stamina


Creance: Handler retrieves bird for another round


Creance: Bird is allowed to rest in between flights

Getting the lead out of our Golden Purifiers

August 21, 2014

by Claudia Duckworth, Pacific Wildlife Care rehabilitator

They are probably not most peoples’ choice for a favorite bird. As a wildlife rehabilitator, I have been hissed and growled at, thrown up on, (a reaction to the stress of being handled), bitten and clawed by these animals, but like many of my fellow rehabbers, I have developed a fondness and admiration for these large, intelligent, curious and dignified birds.

I’m referring to Turkey Vultures.

The word vulture likely comes from the Latin vellere, which means to pluck or tear. Its scientific name, Cathartes aura, is far more pleasant. It means either “golden purifier” or “purifying breeze.”*

Turkey Vultures are brought to the Pacific Wildlife Care Center for a variety of reasons, but by far the most common reason is lead poisoning. Like their larger relative, the California Condor, these carrion-eating birds are poisoned from eating dead animals that have been shot with lead bullets. Once the lead enters the bird’s gut, it is broken down by acid strong enough to kill the most noxious bacteria and break down bones and fur. As the lead enters the bird’s bloodstream, it damages every organ in the body. In addition to anemia, joint and muscle pain, weakness and severe cramping, the digestive tract shuts down. There is often leg paralysis, depression and impaired brain function. Lead poisoning is a medical emergency because time is a factor in the reversibility of the damage. High levels of lead can result in blindness and death for the bird.

Lead Toxicity: Diagnosis and Treatment

Due to the numbers of lead-poisoned vultures and other birds Pacific Wildlife Care receives, including Golden Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks, we purchased a lead-testing machine. We are able to determine immediately if an animal has been poisoned and begin treatment. We also take radiographs to ascertain if there is lead still in the digestive system which will continue to poison the bird. Efforts are made to get the bird to pass the lead and if that is unsuccessful, it is sometimes necessary to remove the lead by using endoscopy. This means inserting a tube into the bird to retrieve the lead particles.

The treatment for lead poisoning, called chelation, is long, difficult and painful. It requires frequent handling and multiple injections daily. In the best cases, the lead levels come down and the bird recovers. Sadly, many times we are unsuccessful and the bird dies or is humanely euthanized.

I do remember one bird, a juvenile that came to us unable to fly. Unlike the adults, juvenile turkey vultures have fuzzy black heads and soft blue-brown eyes. He was lead-poisoned but we caught it in time and were able to treat him and return him to his large, extended family, properly called a venue in vulture speak.

Too often, lead poisonings do not turn out well and we don’t know how many birds and mammals die that never make it to Pacific Wildlife Care. It has been determined that a single #4 lead pellet will kill a large bird over a period of two to four weeks if not removed.

Good news on the lead front

In October, 2013, California became the first state to ban lead ammunition for hunting. The ban goes into full effect in July, 2019. There have been other partial lead bans in the past, most notably in 1991 for hunting waterfowl, but this is a complete ban. Californians should feel proud of this achievement and we are hopeful that it will make a difference.

“As I watch a kettle of Turkey Vultures effortlessly rising on thermals against a clear blue sky, rocking and swaying without a wasted wing movement, the pleasure of their company is often accompanied by a silent wish for them to be careful out there.” -Claudia Duckworth

Lead-poisoned Turkey Vultures recovering at the Pacific Wildlife Care Rehabilitation Center.

Photos by Jeanette Stone.



Baby Season: Birds of Prey

May 7, 2014

By Pamela Hartmann

Photos by Jeanette Stone and Jeri Roberts

Raising a baby raptor is tricky. No human can do the job that avian parents do. For this reason, it’s almost always preferable to re-nest a baby bird that has fallen from the nest, and for it to grow up with its own kind in the wild, than for humans to attempt to raise it.

However, placing a baby bird of prey (such as a hawk or owl) back in the nest carries with it its own challenges, as Bob Peak will tell you. Re-nester extraordinaire at Pacific Wildlife Care, Peak is kept busy from mid-April through the end of June reuniting birds with their families—or occasionally with other families.

Having the right equipment is necessary to the task. Peak takes with him goggles, gloves, maybe boots, ladder, ropes, crate, nesting materials, and CD player or iPhone with a speaker—this to use after returning the baby to the nest or branch, when he retreats some distance and plays distress calls. “The parents are quick to respond,” Peak says, “often within a minute.”

And having the know-how is essential. One key to re-nesting, he says, is an ability to identify the species. Some birds can be placed with others of their species from a different nest, but this doesn’t work with Red-tailed Hawks, for example. Knowing the species also tells the rescuer what sort of nest the bird is from, and although the original nest or cavity is usually best, there could be reasons (predators, for example, or a tree too high for a person to climb) to create another, false, nest and place it nearby.

PWC volunteer Bob Peak preparing to “re-nest” this Red-tailed Hawk nestling

PWC volunteer Bob Peak preparing to “re-nest” this Red-tailed Hawk nestling

Another key to re-nesting is determining the bird’s stage of development. A nestling has an egg-tooth beak and a thin coat of down feathers. Older nestlings have down and their first flight feathers. Branchers are old enough to leave the nest and begin hopping around on tree branches. Fledglings are beginning to fly but are still dependent on their parents.

Sometimes a property owner will call PWC, worried about a baby bird on the ground whose “first flight was a failure,” explains Jeanette Stone, Center Operations Director at PWC. But if the parent is alive, there’s no problem; the parent will return. The humans just need to keep watch with binoculars, from a distance, and keep dogs and cats away.

Home Rehabilitation

If the baby is truly an orphan, or if re-nesting is not an option because of an unsafe environment, predators, siblicide, or such, it may be necessary for the bird to be raised by one of several home rehabilitators in SLO County.

 However, Jeri Roberts will tell you that there’s a good reason it’s illegal to raise a raptor—or any wild animal—without a permit from the state. Home re-habbing requires a great deal of knowledge and a huge commitment.

Growing up, Roberts “never even had a parakeet,” she says—let alone a wild bird of prey. But one day about ten years ago, she saw a young woman from Pacific Wildlife Care in an Earth Day booth at Mission Plaza. On the woman’s well-gloved arm was a Great Horned Owl named “Hoot”—one of the few raptors that the state has designated as an educational animal.  Wham. Roberts was enchanted.

Back in those days, before Pacific Wildlife Care had its Morro Bay Rehabilitation Center and wildlife veterinarian, PWC consisted of a group of individual but associated home rehabilitators, and Roberts wanted to become one. She got in touch with the group and told them that she had acreage and a chicken coop up in Prefumo Canyon (“as wild a setting as possible”) and would like to learn how to handle, raise, and rehabilitate raptors such as owls and hawks. She received mentoring from home rehabbers. She went to conferences. She visited raptor centers—even one in Alaska—to find out how they did things. Then she got to work.

Today, Roberts is a Senior Rehabilitator at PWC, through which she does educational outreach, teaches the baby bird class, gets educational birds ready to meet the public, raises baby raptors, and does creancing, the glove training that provides injured adult raptors with the exercise necessary to prepare them to return to the wild—the final step in their rehabilitation.

If her “first love is education,” as she puts it, “trying to raise these raptors” is her “second passion.” As one of several home rehabbers in SLO County, Roberts now has three flight facilities on her property, making it one of the de facto satellites of Pacific Wildlife Care’s Morro Bay Center, the central receiving point where orphaned raptors are first brought for intake—a physical exam, weighing, and banding. Although injured adult birds often remain at the Center for recovery, injured or orphaned babies are always raised by home rehabbers to minimize human contact and avoid imprinting—bonding and recognition of others of the bird’s own kind. It is crucial, of course, that animals returning to the wild not lose their fear of humans, because doing so would make life in the wild even more dangerous. And it’s already “really tough out there”; the mortality rate in the first year of life in the wild is 50%—and that’s when the birds are raised in ideal conditions, by their own parents.

At the PWC Center, with its virtual army of supervisors and volunteers caring for many animals—mammalian, avian, and sometimes reptilian—it would be more difficult to retain the control necessary to avoid imprinting than it is for one human raising a group of nestlings. Hence the small constellation of home rehabbers.

Begin with the Space

To raise a bird of prey, you start with the right setting. Jeri Roberts’ largest flight facility is a cage 30 feet long. Another is 20 feet long, 10 feet high, and L-shaped, with a gentle curve at the angle—a space where young or adult raptors can exercise and practice making turns. But the babies are placed in mews—small raised cages set into the side of the larger facility. In these cages, the babies are safe, and Roberts can see them through peep holes above a sort of doggie door, without being seen by them. This door is a flap that allows her to reach in and feed them with a tool that looks like long tweezers or tongs. For those times when she can’t avoid being seen by baby Great Horned owls, which imprint more easily than other raptors, she wears an owl mask, because once the babies’ eyes are open, imprinting begins.

Within the facility, the mews must be furnished to resemble a natural nest. In the wild, young nestlings (with only a thin coat of down) are kept warm by the mother. So in each small cage, the home rehabber needs to supply heating pads (to provide warmth but not too much) and feather dusters—to simulate Mom.

Birds of a Feather: Identifying with One’s Species

You’ve provided the space and furnished the mews. Now you have to consider the babies’ need for contact with others of their own species. It’s beneficial, for example, for baby Red-tailed Hawks to look out into the larger cage and watch an adult hawk flying, hunting, and preening—something to aspire to, so to speak. At times in the past, Roberts would borrow Hoot as a role model for baby Great Horned Owls. But if she doesn’t happen to have an adult in the outer cage, she puts a mirror in the small cage, so “the babies can see what they are.”

Roberts always hopes to have more than one baby at a time—two to four together in each mew. If she has only one orphan from a nest, she can mix babies from different nests—and even of different ages—though of course they must be of the same species. This often involves negotiating with other home rehabbers, to trade species.


Great Horned Owl “brancher”

Mixing babies from different ages or nests turns out to be easier with some species than others. Great Horned Owls are easy to mix, as are kestrels. Once, Roberts put a downy baby kestrel with another kestrel that was a little older. Although a baby herself, the older one started feeding the younger. However, Barn Owls are harder to mix in a way that ensures that “nobody gets hurt.” The protocol requires putting up a screen for several days so they can hear but not see one another. Although “you don’t want to make generalizations,” Roberts says, since “they have distinct personalities,” adult male Barn Owls are usually more docile than females. In the wild, the female adult is very aggressive and protects the nest viciously. Babies can be vicious, too. The adult male drops off food at a nest in the wild and immediately leaves because “the babies would attack him.”

In the midst of a busy baby season, it might be necessary to have nests of different species together in the mews, sharing the same flight cage when they’re old enough. This works surprisingly well as long as they don’t see one another—and if the young of one nest are diurnal and the other nocturnal.

However, teaching young birds their own “language” is another matter. Jeri Roberts sometimes plays recordings of calls for the babies (although never distress calls) so they can hear what adults of their species sound like. The problem with this? Humans can’t yet discern the meaning of most calls, or as Roberts puts it, “I don’t know that language.” For this reason, borrowing Hoot, the Great Horned Owl, was a good idea because he was “a very vocal owl.”

The Challenges of Diet

Nestling Red-tailed Hawk – Photo by Jeri Roberts

Nestling Red-tailed Hawk – Photo by Jeri Roberts

Another reason baby raptors are tricky to raise is their diet. Jeri Roberts was once permitted to keep as an educational animal a Barn Owl that had been confiscated from a person with good intentions but a lack of knowledge. This person had taken in the owl as a baby and knew owls to be carnivores but—out of ignorance—fed the bird hamburger meat. When this diet resulted in multiple bone fractures, the owl was taken to a veterinarian, who diagnosed him with metabolic bone disease and notified the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The problem is that raptors must eat whole animals—not just the flesh. Without consuming the bones, too, these birds of prey aren’t able to build their own strong bones. So although Jeri Roberts herself is a vegetarian, she keeps “a freezer full of dead mice” bought at great expense from a company that provides them for this purpose—part of the reason that raising these birds requires a big commitment.

The Time of the Empty Nest

After weeks of being hand fed, the baby birds arrive at the branching age, and Roberts opens the door between the large flight facility and the small cage within it. In the large cage, she has carefully placed branches and boards with roosting areas for the young birds to use as they begin explore the world outside the mew and to fly. Their small nests are still there, but raptors rarely return to the nest.

American Kestrels

American Kestrels

“When they start branching,” she says, “they’re self-feeding, and now we’re in business.” At this point, they learn to fly by practicing, but she has to teach them another skill essential for survival in the wild: hunting live prey. She does this by putting live mice in a long trough inside the flight facility.

In time, the birds are ready for a “soft release” in which they are freed to the wild but are still able to return to a feeding platform outside the cage to supplement their prey from hunting. As their hunting skills improve, the intervals between which they return to the platform become longer and longer.

In the hierarchy of ways to deal with baby birds of prey, re-nesting is always the most desirable. Failing that, surrogacy is the next option (to be covered in the June issue of SLO Coast Journal). The raising of baby raptors by home rehabilitators—no matter how knowledgeable, caring, and attentive—is the option of last resort, with good reason: it’s very, very hard.

Barn Owls

Barn Owls

For more information on Pacific Wildlife Care, to volunteer, or to make a donation, go to the website: If you find an injured wild animal, call the PWC Hotline (805-543-9453).

A Beginning

January 7, 2014

Story and photo by Claudia Duckworth

I’d like to introduce you to PWCs first education corvid, “Corax.” He belongs to the family that includes crows, jays, Magpies and nutcrackers. Corax is a raven and his designation in the ornithological world is Corvus Corax or Common Raven. Corax came to the PWC Center in the Spring of 2012 as a nestling whose nest and nest mates had been destroyed. He was injured, but, as always, we hoped he could eventually be returned to the wild.

Despite our efforts, Corax could not fly adequately to survive in the wild and the decision was made to include him in our education program. Corvids are notoriously difficult to train because, despite being among the smartest of animals, they are extremely wary of new things and change.
PWC is fortunate to have a young wildlife trainer, Karen Johnston, on staff who was experienced with education animals and was willing to work with me and Corax. Neither of us realized the time and energy it would take to earn this bird’s trust. Karen was faced with training a wild raven and a novice handler. We built a large aviary since Corax can fly in a limited way and developed a plan. Plan A quickly changed to Plan B, to C, and so on.

Karen was experienced with raptors and many other species but had not worked much with corvids. Everything frightened this bird: a new glove, a different bowl, a moved perch, including having him on the glove, walking around, an essential event for an education bird. Everything caused visible stress. At times, we were discouraged thinking we would have to give up and find a new home for a bird that we had come to know and care for.

At about the year mark, with time running out as Karen prepared to start nursing school, we had a breakthrough! Thanks to her skill and determination, it appeared Corax had achieved what David Jackson of “Zoo To You,” has described to us as “learning to learn.” Now, it was Karen and I who were wary. We’d been on a roller coaster ride of two steps forward followed by ten steps back. Was it real? I can only say that, so far, it is!

This journey will continue and we will have to ask our audiences to understand and help as Corax progresses. Karen has agreed to continue to work us into her busy schedule. For me, it has been a most happy adventure of getting to know two engaging fellow beings: one small, black and feathered and the other tall, slender and wise beyond her years.


Karen Johston with ‘Corax’


Match Doubles Donations to Fund Veterinarian at Pacific Wildlife Care

October 12, 2013

Morro Bay, CA, October 7, 2013—A matching fund has been established that will double all donations to Pacific Wildlife Care’s “Fund Our Vet” campaign.

A full-time on-site veterinarian, Dr. Shannon Riggs, was first hired at Pacific Wildlife Care (PWC) in January, 2013 as Director of Animal Care. Since then, survival rates have improved significantly, from 35% in January to 62% from March to October—well above the national average. The current funding effort aims at securing Riggs’ services through 2014.

Dr. Riggs oversees the work of skilled Senior Rehabilitators and 120 volunteers, optimizing efforts to provide prompt, expert care at PWC, whose mission is to treat and return to the natural habitat injured, orphaned, and pollution-damaged wildlife in San Luis Obispo County. The center has steadily expanded its capacity, volunteer base, and number of animals treated—taking in 2,336 animals in 2012.

Due to Riggs’ expertise, more animals are rehabilitated than could have been otherwise, such as a turkey vulture, recently released near Cal Poly, that was brought to the center with two broken wings—or a pelican that was admitted wrapped in fishing line and fish hooks, with a fish carcass in its esophagus and spines protruding from its pouch. Dr. Riggs reached down into its throat and pulled out a large rockfish. The pelican recovered and was released October 4.

Donations to the “Fund Our Vet” campaign will be matched, dollar for dollar, until January 15, 2014, although earlier donations will allow the center to better plan for the coming year.

For more about Pacific Wildlife Care, to make a donation to Fund Our Vet, or to learn about volunteer orientation, go to


Brown pelican with large fish carcass stuck in throat

removing fish

Great Horned Owl #13-757

August 3, 2013
Left: skin graft fails Right: wound is healing nicely

Left: skin graft fails
Right: wound is healing nicely

And now….a story from our Vet, Shannon Riggs, DVM

Great horned owl #13-757 arrived at Pacific Wildlife Care on May 28 after being found entangled in a barbed wire fence.  The bird’s rescuer was able to cut the small section of fence around which the bird’s right wing was wrapped and bring the bird to the clinic.

GHOW 757 sustained a significant injury to the underside of the patagium (or “wing web”) of the right wing.  A single barb had become embedded in the skin and, while struggling to free himself, the owl wrapped the skin tightly around the barb, tearing the skin.  The result was a large open wound approximately three inches in diameter.  Luckily, there was not significant damage to muscle or tendons and the bird was in good condition otherwise so, despite this severe injury, we decided to try working with this bird.

Barbed wire entanglement is relatively common injury for birds of prey, especially great horned owls.  The birds apparently don’t see the wire, or that there are barbs on the wire, and become caught, usually by a wing, as they are trying to fly through.  In struggling to free themselves, the birds often become more tightly trapped, wrapping themselves repeatedly around the wire.  The tightening acts like a tourniquet, compromising blood supply to the entangled wing.  Often, so much damage is done, both from the initial injury and from later loss of tissue due to the constriction, that these cases are not salvageable.

Because the skin that had been covering the wound site was so damaged on this owl, it was no longer viable and could not be used to repair the defect.  Because the skin of the patagium is stretched taut in flight, there is very little extra skin around the injured area that can be moved over such a large defect.  We were therefore left with having to manage the injury as an open wound.  Potential complications that are of concern are the potential for infection and loss of viability of exposed muscle, tendons, blood vessels, and nerves.

The owl was started on medications to prevent infection and to manage pain.  Luckily, the owl ate well on his own from the beginning, so his handling could be decreased by placing his medications into food items.  Daily dressing changes were performed, applying wound care products that keep tissue hydrated and promote healing.  Two weeks after admission, when the wound was looking clean and healthy, we decided to try a type of tissue graft.  Specially treated porcine tissue, a commercially available product used as a tissue patch, was affixed over the wound under anesthesia.  We continued to manage the wound 2-3 times per week, cleaning the tissue graft site and applying gel to keep the graft hydrated.  Unfortunately, after approximately 2 weeks, the graft was no longer viable and had to be removed.  We then found another product, a biological glass substance, which stimulates growth of new blood vessels and therefore healing.

The owl has shown a good response to this treatment.  Over the past month, the wound has been checked, cleaned, and a new dressing applied twice weekly.  The wound has contracted significantly without the formation of scar tissue, which would have impaired the ability of the wing to extend fully.  At this point, it seems that the owl is making significant strides toward release.  While it is always impossible to make predictions about wildlife cases, as any number of things can happen that could change the course of a patient’s rehabilitation, if things continue as they have been, the prospects for this owl’s release are good.  It will likely still be several weeks before we will know for certain, but we are hopeful that this owl will be able to return to his wild life.

Amazing, Dedicated PWC Volunteers

June 27, 2013

Pacific Wildlife Care could not do it’s lifesaving work without our legion of volunteers.  PWC currently has over 80 Center Volunteers, 50 Transporters, 20 Phone Volunteers and 50 Home Rehabbers.  Recently, we have several new “Front Desk” and “Bookkeeping” volunteers who now help answer phones, attempt to keep up with data input, check the mail, enter receipts, and help with intakes on wildlife brought in by the public.  Thank you:  Dorothy Correa, Joyce Pardue, Pati Scott, JoDea Harry

As an organization, the Board of Directors understands that we have grown to the point of needing an Executive Director as well as needing an Office Manager (however, funding is not yet available for such important, organization-stabilizing jobs); so, in the meantime, we rely heavily on our wonderful volunteers!

It’s such a rewarding experience to recognize that our volunteers, when they see or realize a “need” for PWC, step up, take initiative and just “do it!”

From Kelly Cherry (who stepped up to help with the Center and Phone Volunteer’s calendar and email reminders), to Christine Lanier (who saw the need to start up “Critter Corner” – a newsletter just for the Center Volunteers), to Shawn Brown (who saw the need for one-on-one mentoring sessions for new volunteers), to Gary Bendetti (who fixed the precarious cage washing area), to Karen Venditti (who has taken over gathering info for and emailing out “Critter Corner”), to Richard Grise (who will get the word out to our volunteers about Oiled Wildlife Care Network trainings), to Kathleen Dillon (who helped coordinate the recent Center remodel), to our volunteer Tech Guru / President / Treasurer Dave Klinzman (who as supported the organization beyond measure); we are all so very appreciative for the vision you had and the time you committed to PWC!

The organization benefits from each and every volunteer who gives of their time, ideas and skills.

THANK YOU!  THANK YOU! THANK YOU!  Look for information on the Volunteer Appreciation Picnic to be scheduled in late summer or early fall…

Christine Lanier smiles as she takes on another “dirty job!”

Christine Lanier smiles as she takes on another “dirty job!”


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