Wake County

Orphan owls take wing at Lake Wheeler

CLAWS, Inc. releases five owls to the wild

Crowd watches local wildlife rehab group send owls into the trees at Lake Wheeler park
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Crowd watches local wildlife rehab group send owls into the trees at Lake Wheeler park

With his wings proudly spread, an orphaned screech owl took his first flaps as a wild adult Saturday, nursed to full strength, free to soar into the tall oaks around Lake Wheeler and hunt mice into old age.

He fluttered across a field of grass, wobbly as an old-time biplane, then landed on a strip of yellow caution tape. He perched there for second, clinging by his beak, then dropped to the ground.

“He can fly,” groaned Kindra Mammone, the bird’s caregiver since May. “He’s just being a pill.”

Five new owls now inhabit the lake thanks to Claws Inc., the nonprofit Mammone runs out of her home near Chapel Hill, aimed at healing wounded wildlife, rescuing exotic pets and building harmony between human and critter.

So far this year, Claws has sheltered 19 hawks, five screech owls, two great-horned owls and four barred owls, feeding them rodents, arranging for medicine, helping them practice hunting and flight. Letting five go to live as nature intended represented both triumph and relief.

“Every one of these birds has spewed mouse guts on me,” said Mammone. “So, no, I’m going to miss them at all. I’m glad to see them doing what they’re supposed to do.”

About 30 people gathered to watch the owls’ “flying out party,” and normally Mammone would pick people out of the crowd to release each bird. On Saturday, she chose Dr. Mike Grafinger, the Durham and Holly Springs veterinarian who treated Gromit, a barred owl with a fractured wing.

“I do a lot of wildlife surgery,” said Grafinger, who works at Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital. “I spayed an otter. I had a raccoon with gastrointestinal foreign object I took out. It ate a marble, and I had to take the marble out of its intestines.”

Nobody thought that Gromit, whose tree fell down in a springtime storm, would make it. But an X-ray, a splint and time cured all doubts. Still, rehabilitating wild birds can be tricky.

“They’re unpredictable,” Grafinger said. “They’ll hurt you. These birds of prey can put their talons right through your hands.”

His youngest son Will, 7, held the first screech owl. Off it flew, taking a tree branch with a clean landing.

Then came Joey, 10, whose second screecher took a short flight and landed under some bleachers. With some nudging, he joined his brother in the woods.

Next came Michael, 13, whose brave bird headed straight for the yellow tape. Nudge. Nudge.

For the finale, Grafinger and his wife, JoAnne, held the two barred owls, each the size of a football after only two months in rehab. One managed to reach a low-hanging branch; one darted straight for the caution tape.

“All of these birds came in as itty-bitty babies,” Mammone said. “Afterward, I’ll watch the video and I’ll be like, ‘Ohhhhh!’”

Somewhere in the woods, five owls trained their eyes on the forest floor, forgetting about all the hand-fed mice, zooming in on the live ones.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

How to help

To donate or to learn more about Claws Inc. and its work with wildlife and exotic animals, see www.nc-claws.org.