People who give a hoot for raptors
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By Ilanit Chernick
Johannesburg - Set against the backdrop of vast rolling hills and the Hartbeespoort Dam, the Owl Rescue Centre, located just over the North West province border, is a temporary home to owls in need of healing.
For the past eight years, founder Brendan Murray, together with his wife Danelle and their team of dedicated staff members, have rehabilitated thousands of owls from across the country.
“Many of the owls that we’ve treated have suffered from illness, poisoning, injury or have been orphaned,” Murray said.
The centre receives about four or five injured owls a week.
Most of them are rehabilitated and released.
“A couple of them can’t be released because their injuries are too severe and may result in, for example, an amputated wing. Our decision is guided by the quality of life of the owl. These owls make good foster parents to babies that come into the centre, taking over their rearing, preparing the owlets for a successful release into the wild,” Murray said.
Many of the injuries are “man-caused”.
“Car collisions, electric boxes and fences, secondary poisoning because they’ve eaten a rat that has consumed rat poison, pellet guns, persecution due to superstitious beliefs or attacks by dogs or cats are the main causes,” he said.
Most of the owls brought to the sanctuary are urban raptors (birds of prey) and, according to Murray, the area surrounding the centre “is the perfect environment to release them”.
As we traipsed through the 45-hectare farm on which the centre is situated, Murray showed us a structure mounted high in the air, covered in green netting.
“This is a hack; it’s used for a soft release’ of some of our barn owls back into their natural environment. We release a group of them every other week.”
Murray said the centre got hundreds of barn owls every year. Many were birds people had asked to have relocated from places they weren’t wanted.
“A lot of the birds are rescued, but there’s nothing wrong with them. We are asked to remove them due to superstitious fears or causing an interference in production of workshops or factories,” Murray said.
He stopped mid-sentence and pointed towards a clump of trees in the distance.
We were hearing the call of a black-eyed bulbul.
“There must be an owl there; the bulbul always gives away the position if there’s an owl in its vicinity,” he said.
The centre is open well into the night so that individuals can bring injured owls through; most are brought in between 6am and 7pm.
The centre also fetches owls even if it’s two hours away in Joburg. If it’s late at night and an injured owl is found far away, the bird will be picked up the next morning. The centre has a clinic and works in collaboration with several vets, including volunteer vets, who help treat the injured owls.
“But owls are as strong as oxen. Once they’re sewn up it’s a waiting game; waiting for them to heal and the feathers to grow back, waiting to get them nourished and flying fit.
“And waiting to get them conditioned to a whistle in preparation of the release so they’re aware that whistle time is food time. Post-release, they know that they can return and get food when they hear the whistle if they are not yet catching their own prey. When they’re self-sufficient, they usually move off to find their own habitat.”
Murray said recovery time varied, depending on the type of injury and the bird.
“A wing injury can take three to four months to recover whereas a concussion can take two or three days,” he said.
There are several different enclosures; specific ones for injured owls until they’re well enough to be moved to one of the release enclosures.
“The sooner we get to move them into a release aviary, the less chance of the owl imprinting on us. You don’t want them to get used to people, so the minimum time is spent handling them - they must live with their own kind,” he said.
Once rehabilitated, the owls are released back into their natural habitat using specially researched methods.
“If they’re not indigenous to an area we will release them back in the area where they came from, but for most of the owls we get in, this is more or less their habitat,” he said.
As part of the process of monitoring the progress of owls released into the area, there are feed platforms all around the rescue centre and staff dissect the owls’ pellets to decipher how they are doing.
“We feed them mostly chicken and rats; owls regurgitate pellets hours after they’ve eaten and, by looking at the pellets, we can determine whether they are hunting. Over the weeks, if we see a snake head, a little beetle, lizards or scorpions in their pellets, we’ll then know they are able to hunt,” he said.
But if a released owl doesn’t fly away when one of the staff members walks up to it, there’s a problem.
“We’ll catch him, weigh him and if found that he’s underweight,we’ll put him back into captivity for a month or two, fatten him up again and then repeat the release process.”
Murray, 44, has been working with owls for 24 years and he said that despite that, their behaviour still “surprises us every day”, a smile playing on his face.
In many traditional cultures, owls are believed to be associated with death, witchcraft and evil.
It’s for this reason that many people ask the rescue centre to remove owls that have settled in their homes.
“If we’re going to combat the stigma surrounding owls, people need to be educated, which is something we do a lot of. We go around to the schools and teach children about the importance of owls and their place in the environment. Bryan, who resides on the property, does bird presentations with the kids.
“He has a tame barn owl which is not releasable due to an injury. The owl is used in education to help children to lose their fear of these birds, so when they grow up, theoretically they shouldn’t be superstitious about it.”
Murray took us to the barn owl enclosure where we were able to observe these owls fly with agile movement.
“They are fascinating birds. Almost completely silent in flight. Each with their own unique characters.”
As we headed back to the shade of a large and rustic veranda, Murray recalled some of the difficulties that the Owl Rescue Centre had experienced in the past year.
Since April last year the centre has faced issues of continuous poaching and crime.
“There are snares everywhere, we’ve even found one right here,” Murray said, pointing down to a grassy area next to where we sat sipping juice and listening to the sounds of nature surrounding us.
The farm is also home to small game like impala which have also fallen victim to poachers.
“They don’t even check the snares; we’ve come across animals that have been dead in a snare for three weeks. We’ve had some of our owls stolen out of their enclosures, they also know where some of our feeding platforms are and they catch them there,” he said.
Although Murray said that not a lot of their owls had been taken, the poaching was becoming a big problem.
“It’s not exclusively owls; they’ll catch or snare anything they can sell for a few hundred rand. When they do go for owls it’s usually for muti’ purposes or the illegal pet trade of wildlife,” he said.
Although there is a game fence around the centre, it’s not electrified.
“You can’t have an owl sanctuary with an electric fencing because what happens if one of our owls flies into it?”
Murray is raising money for a drone with a night-vision camera that will hopefully help the centre to catch some of the poachers.
“The area is so vast and they come in from different sides, there are settlements a few kilometres away and no employment so they’ll do anything for as little as R20.”
He said it wasn’t just their farm that was affected but also their neighbours, with a neighbour’s dog being caught in a snare just a few days before our visit to the centre.
“They’re stealing our neighbours’ game as well. It’s not like it’s unique to us.”
The drone costs about R48 000 and Murray said they’d raised just over R14 000.
Aside from poaching, Murray said that funding was also one of the challenges the centre faced daily.
Murray said the centre needed solar lights, pet carriers, heating pads for baby owls’ medical supplies like bandages, wound dressings, antibacterial ointment and disinfectant sprays, and a golf cart for night-time feedings as they needed a quieter type of vehicle when doing the feeds.
Murray has high hopes for the future of the centre.
“We will grow it up and it will get bigger and better. More enclosures to rehabilitate more owls.”
He and Danelle also want to travel around the world and do projects and filming of owls and raptors. There are many species and things people don’t know about them. And through filming and working with them, the couple hope to change this.
“Take for example a Cape Eagle Owl, there’s little information on their distribution, breeding and hunting behaviour,” Murray said.
When asked what he enjoyed the most about this job, he responded with a sneaky smile and joked that he didn’t have to sit in traffic all day.
“What do I love about what I do? Everything, what is there not to love about it? I know it sounds like a cliché, but you do what you love and you never have to work again,” he said.
Murray had a strong message to South Africans: “Think for yourselves, if you set out to do something, think about how it will affect your local wildlife and the impact on your environment.
“Always take that into account and think about it,” he concluded.
Before we drove off into the sunset, Murray showed us a large hill far into the distance. Looking closely, we witnessed hundreds of Cape vultures riding the thermals high above, in the deep blue sky.
*For more information on how you can help the Owl Rescue Centre contact Brendan at 082 719 5463.