They’re big, but elusive. Stylish, yet shy.
Coming face to face with a great gray owl — and what a face they have — is like meeting a major star who eschews the red carpet.
The only reason this one is grudgingly getting its picture taken is because it had the misfortune of flying into a page-wire fence in Chelmsford and is now recuperating from a tendon injury at the Turtle Pond Wildlife Center near Val Caron.
Gloria Morisette, director of the rehab facility, says the owl was “probably pursuing something” when it struck the impediment.
The saucer-eyed night fliers are very adept at weaving through tree branches but apparently not so good at making out the fine mesh of field enclosures.
Morissette says great grays are fairly common in the Sudbury area but this is the first one she’s accommodated at Turtle Pond, which was launched in 2017 and — with the demise of Wild at Heart in late 2019 — is now the only wildlife rehab center in Northeastern Ontario .
They’re the largest owl species in North America, in terms of stature and wing span, although they are outweighed by great-horned owls. Their bulk consists mostly of feathers.
Morissette says they are also “the gentlest of the owls,” being less apt to defend their territories or attack another owl — or human.
They do have a huge dish face, however, and piercing yellow eyes, which together give them a rather formidable look — or a surprised and intense one, at least.
The Chelmsford owl is a female, as is a barred owl occupying an adjacent cage. Owls, like eagles, differ from most species in that the gals outgrow the guys.
Both genders of great gray, however, sport a “bowtie” (a white band with a black centre) below their moon face and a suit of silvery plumage.
The barred owl came into the center in early February with severe head trauma, but is doing much better now.
“She was hit by a car in the North Bay area and we had to force-feed her initially because she was blind,” says Morissette. “Gradually she started taking small pieces of meat from tweezers and two days ago she graduated to mice.”
Morissette demonstrates by passing a dead rodent into the cage; the owl grabs it with one foot while balancing on the other, and proceeds to shred it with its talons and hooked beak.
“Before you had to tap her beak and open it to give her food but she can see quite well now,” said the Turtle Pond director. “We’ll probably be able to release her in a couple of weeks. It’s a real success story.”
Expectations for the great gray are more guarded at this point. It all depends on how well the tendon heals.
“We’re taking her for laser therapy every two days, with veterinarian Nicole Baran, which really cuts the healing time down, but she is still not able to extend her talons right now,” says Morissette.
Meanwhile the rehabber is feeding the gray beauty bits of meat — being hobbled, it can’t rip apart a rodent on its own — but it’s a process that requires patience.
“She’s very skittish,” says Morissette. “It takes five minutes for her to get used to you being there.”
While the two owls are quartered next to one another, their cages are draped in cloths and they don’t really interact, much less bond.
It’s a far different story — a love story, in fact — in another outbuilding at Turtle Pond, where a pair of Canada geese have become an inseparable unit, despite the tragic circumstances that drew them together.
The gander was rescued in December from a patch of ice in Timmins, where he had been sticking by an injured mate.
“The female had gunshot wounds and couldn’t fly, but he wouldn’t leave her,” says Morissette. “So they were sitting there on thin ice near a park area, and people were observing them.”
Finally some volunteers were able to coax the devoted pair — whom they dubbed Romeo and Juliet — ashore, and get them delivered to Turtle Pond.
Sadly the female’s injuries were too severe for her to make a recovery, but at least she was humanely euthanized and spared what would have been “a terrible lingering death,” says Morissette.
Romeo, meanwhile, had only superficial damage to his feathers — he was likely grazed by the same blast of pellets that fatally injured his partner — but a broken heart.
Geese are famously loyal, dying for life, although they will adjust to a new partner if their mate meets a premature end.
That’s what happened for widowed Romeo, when “another little female came in from down the road,” says Morissette. “We’re calling her Julia.”
While the goosely-weds would probably prefer to honeymoon in a private pond, as opposed to a paneled room at the back of a construction trailer, the two will remain here until spring, when they will be released back into the wild.
There are many other hard-luck, yet resilient, critters spending the winter at Turtle Pond, most of which will also find their way back into nature once they mend and the snow melts off.
A half-dozen flying squirrels, for example, are currently nestled in “snuggle sacks” (provided by a Hamilton seamstress who specializes in products for pocket pets), while a similar number of songbirds, most of them rescued from the jaws of cats, hop among the branches of an indoor tree.
Housed in separate outbuildings are two mange-affected foxes — one of them rescued from the campus of Cambrian College — and three coyotes that are also suffering from the brutal skin disease. The latest was found curled in a snowbank — starved and weakened — at a local landfill.
“Mange is really bad this year,” says Morissette.
Luckily she has more space to accommodate animals now, having inherited some structures from Wild at Heart and added more to her own. Apart from the original garage building that was created to rehab turtles and hatch their eggs, there are now two heated trailers that can house other creatures in winter, plus a bunky that will be used in warmer months to screen and triage intakes.
“There is a lot of concern right now about avian flu, as well as a rabbit virus and COVID getting transferred to some animals, so we need a separate place where we can do an initial assessment and avoid contamination,” says Morissette.
The goal with the remaining structures is “to have a species-specific area for everybody,” she says.
One trailer, for example, will become a “rodent nursery” in the spring, she says, plus it includes an area for baby birds. The second trailer will be dedicated to raccoons — which predictably arrive in droves in May and June — and include quarantine rooms.
Turtle Pond depends entirely on donations and volunteers, as it gets no funding from the government or other sources.
“Right now we could really use meat, like chicken or beef, for the coyotes and foxes,” says Morissette. “Somebody recently donated some moose meat and they gobbled that right up.”
The center also spends a lot of money at bait shops to make sure turtles, eagles and other creatures get a good helping of minnows.
“Food and hydro are our biggest expenses,” she says. “Whatever people can donate, it all helps, but if we can get monetary donations then we can go and pick up specialty items.”
For more information about Turtle Pond, and to donate directly to the facility, visit www.turtlepondwc.com.