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Ruffled Feathers

The Born to Be Wild Nature Center has helped a higher number of owls than usual

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Most people appreciate up close and personal encounters with wildlife, but for drivers and the Barred Owl, a bit of distance is probably best. Black ice and bad drivers weren’t the only hazards to look out for on wintery Rhode Island roads; New England saw an increase of cars colliding with Barred Owls this winter, and as a result, the Born to Be Wild Nature Center in Bradford took in unusual numbers of these injured birds and is trying to figure out why the influx is happening.

Vivian Maxson and her husband John run the center where they specialize in the rehabilitation and release of injured and orphaned birds of prey, and provide sanctuary spaces for those that cannot safely return to the wild. Since January, they took in more Barred Owls than was typical, all due to injuries sustained in collisions with drivers.

It’s not just Little Rhody that’s seeing this jump in wintertime crashes; across the Northeast, Barred Owl collisions have been on the rise. It’s a strange trend, given the rate of these accidents, and it has uniquely involved the same species. “Just looking at last winter this phenomenon did not happen,” says Maxson.

So why the spike? Maxson attributes it to a combination of factors: Barred Owls live near wetlands, but roadside litter attracts rodents, the birds’ main winter diet. Both Barred Owl populations and the number of cars on the road seem to have increased, furthering the risk of collision. And it’s not just our own driving distractions: this time of year, Barred Owls are in a pre-mating courtship phase, so they’re just as frenzied by love as we can be.

Owls sent to Born to Be Wild are given medical attention and secure outdoor aviaries until they heal. While some of the Barred Owls have been released after days or weeks, Maxson says, “If they have a significant head injury, which a lot of them do when they smack into a car – those can take months. And some of them have permanent brain injury.”

Luckily, the center gained only one non-releasable Barred Owl this year, a juvenile who is in the process of receiving a permit as an educational ambassador for the Audubon Society. All others have since been released back to nature.

What can we do to prevent future accidents? A couple of things. Awareness while driving is a given, but decreasing litter will attract less of the owls’ prey to roadways, anticipating the potential for run-ins. It’s exciting to run into wildlife, just not when it’s colliding with our windshields. Bradford