Brownsville zoo tags barn owls to measure rehabilitation efforts 

As vet technician Alejandra Olvera holds the barn owl still, Mark Conway uses a measuring stick to quickly measure each of its wings Thursday, at Gladys Porter Zoo. (Denise Cathey | The Brownsville Herald)

Gladys Porter Zoo tagged five barn owls as it prepared to release them after months of care at the zoo, where they learned to hunt their prey to survive in the wild.

Some of the owls arrived at the zoo in their “fluffy” state, with their eyes still closed. The owls were brought in by members of the community who found them in the nest.

“They are defenseless when they are born and they are completely dependent on mom, so when they bring them in, they bring them to me in these stages that we call them ‘fluffies’ because basically it is a cotton ball with legs and they know nothing about how to fend for themselves, how to feed themselves,” Alejandra Olvera, vet technician at the zoo, said.

Olvera said the owls arrived at the zoo last year at different times. Some of them were brought in September, October and November and one of them arrived with a broken leg.

“We developed a plan of treatment based on the animal symptoms, so he had a broken tibia and we made him a splint with aluminum, which is soft padding … you cannot buy this at the store, you have to mold them to their legs,” she said.

Mark Conway, former wildlife biologist and volunteer at the zoo, said he has been doing wildlife work for many years and banding birds at the zoo with metal tags since 2007. After he bands them, he measures their wings for research purposes.

“What we are trying to find here with these owls that have been rehabilitated is to see how long they can live in nature, because the zoo spends a lot of time and effort in raising these guys from small to adults, and so that’s the ultimate goal; to figure out if the time and effort that is being put is worth it, and it probably is,” he said.

Thomas W. Demaar, senior veterinarian at GPZ, said once the owls know how to hunt live prey, among other things, they are ready to be released.

A rehabilitated barn owl is gently held still following its banding Thursday, at Gladys Porter Zoo. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“We raise them and then we train them to hunt to make sure that they’re eating live and then we let them go,” he said. “We release them in South Padre Island in an undisclosed location and nobody will be able to figure out where we are, because we never want to publicize where we are; it’s not the first time we’ve done this.”

Demaar said if someone finds a nest they should leave the nest alone because the mom will come back and is just waiting for the human to leave the area.

“If they find a nest with barn owl chicks in it … it’d be really great if they would leave it alone,” he said.