Rarely seen spotted owl rescued at Rocklin school flies to freedom

Foresthill area release point provides better chance of survival
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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A long way from its natural home, a spotted owl found injured in a Rocklin schoolyard returned to the wild at dusk Tuesday.

The bird, found anemic and weak Feb. 25 at Parker Whitney Elementary School in Rocklin, was taken to the nearby Gold Country Wildlife Rescue rehabilitation facility in Loomis. It had recovered to the point where it was able to be released back into its natural habitat in the Tahoe National Forest near Foresthill.

The release of the small female owl, weighing in at just more than a pound and judged to be about a year old, was gratifying to the non-profit wildlife rescue group’s Kari Freidig, Gold Country’s lead raptor rehabilitator.

The bird arrived suffering from an apparent blow to the body that may have come from being hit by a vehicle, Freidig said.

“She’s made a good recovery,” Freidig said. “She got help in time, thanks to the public.”

Victor Lyon, wildlife biologist on the American River Ranger District, said the owl was far from home when it was discovered.

“To the best of my knowledge, spotted owls do not occur in that area,” Lyon said. “They prefer large blocks of continuous habitat. In the Rocklin area, it’s very fragmented and there’s a lot of human development – neighborhoods, streets, houses.”

Freidig said that while spotted owls had been rescued in Nevada County none had been found in recent memory in the Rocklin area.

Rocklin is OK for barn owls or great horned owls but a spotted owl in a highly populated area is a rarity, Lyon said.

“It’s speculation, but it may have explored and ended up in an unusual location,” Lyon said.

A school staff member had spotted the bird – a California relative of the Northern Spotted Owl – perched on a pipe, Freidig said.

“She was up there with her eyes closed,” Freidig said. “She wasn’t flying away or acting the way an owl normally would in the presence of humans.”

The good news for rehabbers was that it appeared to be a fresh injury – and that the school was aware of Gold Country Wildlife Rescue and staff was able to summon help in time, she said.

“They were our eyes and ears,” Freidig said. “I’m sure it was the talk of the schoolyard.”

By Tuesday’s release date, the owl was up to eating six to eight mice a day, as well as snacking on pieces of quail. The rescue group received veterinary support from Dr. Mira Sanchez of the Loomis Basin Veterinary Clinic. On Tuesday, it was banded to provide potential future information about its survival and choice of home.

During her stay of more than a month with humans, the bird was given a special, wider perch to prevent pressure sores on her feet similar to bedsores on humans from developing.

“They’re not used to standing all day and night,” Freidig said. “The special perch distributes their weight.”

Gold Country Wildlife Rescue also paid special attention to protecting the recovering owl’s wings.

A silent predator, the owl is virtually noiseless as it swoops down on its prey at night. Damaged wings result in more noise in flight and eliminate that crucial element of surprise, Freidig said.

“They can starve to death from poor feather condition,” she said.

The Foresthill area was chosen because its 3,000 foot elevation – still low enough not to be too cold or snowy – would likely give the owl its best chance of survival. Lyon said that the Big Trees and French Meadows areas are excellent habitat for spotted owls but prone to snow at this time of year.

How to help

The owl rescue came at a busy time for Gold Country Wildlife, as the group is in the midst of a move from Loomis’ town center to 3221 Rippey Road.  Estimated cost for the owl rescue was $300 to $400, Freidig said. People can learn about how to donate or report an injured animal at