"On the Wings of Research" Owl Transmitter Project

by Center for Wildlife
The young owl is released back into the wild!
The young owl is released back into the wild!

Center for Wildlife is so grateful for the support we saw for our "On the Wings of Research: Help Young Owls Soar!" project! We came very close to our fundraising goal and are excited by the community involvement and stewardship this project has inspired. Tracking young owls is an important, yet often un-explored aspect of wildlife medical care. After being raised in captivity, it's important for our staff to understand the success of their release and the survivability of the owl. Since very little research has been done on owls raised in captivity, Center for Wildlife is excited to be on the fore-front of this important research.

After evaluating the owlet raised by our clinic staff and non-releasable great-horned owl ambassadors, Center for Wildlife has decided to extend this project in hopes of gathering more data and funding. During the winter months, when we treat around 70-100 patients (as opposed to 200-400 during the summer!), our staff will be able to further develop this project to hopefully include more data. Research on other owlet studies, collaboration with organizations such as Biodiversity Research Institute and other wildlife medical centers will help our staff better understand the needs of young owls and how a wildlife center can provide those needs.

We aim to resume the project this spring, summer, and fall when we expect to admit orphaned or injured owlets to our clinic. Our staff will begin evaluation and medical care with owlets admitted to our clinic, and those who are ready for release can be candidates for a transmitter. We're also hoping that extending the project may give Center for Wildlife the opportunity to treat, observe and track more than one owlet admitted to our clinic. After successfully releasing the great-horned owl back into the wild, we're confidant our project will help us and other wildlife medical care specialists provide the best care for orphaned and injured owls.

With no state or federal funding available, we are grateful for the opportunity to be involved in such innovative and important research! We couldn't continue our important work treating around 1,600 injured and orphaned wild animals each year and working to maintain best-practices in wildlife care and research without the support of our amazing community! Thank you to everyone who helped support our "On the Wings of Research: Help Young Owls Soar: project and we hope you continue your involvement with the Center for Wildlife and stay-tuned for project updates!

Great-horned owl patient
Great-horned owl patient
Great horned owlet juvenile
Great horned owlet juvenile

Center for Wildlife is pleased to announce the addition of our long-time veterinarian Dr. John Means DVM to our Board of Directors and Wildlife Medical Clinic Committee.  John Means, DVM is a practicing veterinarian who has been involved in wildlife rehabilitation since 1979. He holds a Master’s of Science degree in wildlife biology as part of the Ohio Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit. At that time he was involved in putting patagial tags on great blue herons and performing a breeding census of raptors in central Ohio. He was the director of the Hueston Woods Raptor Rehabilitation Center for the state of Ohio. This experiences as a wildlife rehabilitator led him to pursue a veterinary degree. In veterinary school he ran the raptor rehabilitation ward at Ohio State University. Until that time he held a master banding permit but inactivated it because of the time constraints of veterinary school. Since becoming a veterinarian, he has been performing the veterinary work for the Center for Wildlife.  

He works closely with our Wildlife Specialists whom have increased their diagnostics capabilities to include running bloodwork, testing for parasites, and other skills that lead to treating the root of the injury instead of the symptons. This increases our success rate, which ultimately means more wild animals can be returned back into the wild!  John has also been holding monthly workshops for staff, interns, and volunteers enhancing their professional development and learning opportunities.    

Wildlife Specialist Sonja Ahlberg has a B.S. in Environmental Conservation from the University of New Hampshire, and is currently working towards her M.S. in Biology from the University of Nebraska. Beyond an extensive knowledge of native wildlife ecology and physiology, she has a strong veterinary background. Sonja first became interested in wildlife care while working at the Mt. McKinley Animal Hospital as a certified vetirinary technician. The veterinarian that she worked with volunteered her time pinning bones and stabiliizing raptors, cranes, baby songbirds and mammals, and other native wildlife. Sonja was able to observe and take part in many of those surgeries, and also learned to care for orphaned wildlife.

While in Alaska Sonja also worked for the Alaska Sealife Center as a Veterinary Lab Technician, and was responsible for the lab work and diagnostics of the marine and seabird patients admitted there. She also assisted in weighing, handling, and treating those patients. Sonja was also able to conduct necropsies for the center to help determine cause of patient death- allowing for data collection on possible environmental factors, improving medical research, and much more.

Sonja's love for wildlife expanded to field work at her positions with the National Parks and Forestry Services as a Biological and Wildlife Technician. While with the National Parks she conducted surveys in California of a variety of species from the Columbian spotted frog to grizzly bears. She was also able to conduct bat surveys in caves where she helped to determine the presence of bats and maternity colonies- estimating populations and demographics. During her tenure with the Forest Service she conducted surveys in the Pacific Northwest monitoring species such as the pileated woodpecker, Northern goshawk, and white-headed woodpeckers. These surveys help to guide best management practices, and conservation recommendations.

John and Sonja are primed to lead a new owl transmitter project, with options of placing transmitters on owls with ocular damage to one eye, or juvenile owls orphaned at a young age and raised by foster parents at Center for Wildlife.  It is our hope to place at least one transmitter on an owl this season to continue our work finding answers about post-release success.  A transmitter placed on a young great horned or barred owl will paint the picture of whether supportive care through wildlife rehabilitation practices and adult foster parents are adequate to ensure survival in the wild once the owl has "fledged".  Timing of release, hunting practice, hand-feeding at young ages, enrichment, medical, and supportive care are all aspects of raising a young owl and preparing for release may all be factors that can be analyzed and improved based on findings.  This information would then be shared with other wildlife medical clinics and rehabilitation centers across the country so that success rates of young owls released to the wild can soar!  

Itemized Project Budget 

Purchase of one satellite transmitter                                                                            $3400

Refurbishment of existing satellite transmitter (estimated cost)                              $600

Monitoring of two transmitters for 1 year at $500/ transmitter/ year                  $1000

Miscellaneous expenses, office supplies and support                                                    $500

Total cost  $5,500

With no state or federal funding available for wildlife rehabilitation, there have been little studies to determine post-release success rates of patients.  Studies like this are crucial to ensure that the animals with no owners get the best care possible from wildlife rehabilitators, and are able to thrive and reproduce in the wild for their full life span. Healthy wildlife populations lead to healthy ecosystems, and ultimately healthy humans!  We are so grateful for your interest in our work and local wildlife, and are excited to get this new transmitter project off the ground.  


Thank you!

Owlet Perches- Potential Transmitter Candidate
Owlet Perches- Potential Transmitter Candidate
Proud Foster Parents Gaia and Galileo
Proud Foster Parents Gaia and Galileo
Long eared owl patient
Long eared owl patient

Thanks to your donations Center for Wildlife has continued our work medically treating over injured and orphaned wild owls, and continue to work toward securing funding for the next transmitter to be placed on an owl with ocular damage. In 2012 our local community brought us a total of 33 injured and orphaned owls, with fractures, head trauma, and eye trauma mainly sustained from being hit by cars.  These patients represent native species and include snowy owls, barred owls, great horned owls, Eastern screech owls, and Northern saw whet owls.  20 of these owls were released back into the wild where they belong, and the rest were humanely euthanized due to extensive injuries and internal trauma.  In January alone, we have admitted 10 owls, five are being cared for in the clinic, and three have already been released!  

We have submitted a grant to the National Wildlife Rehabilitator's Association to help with the cost of $5,000 for two transmitters and their data transmission for the next owl patients with ocular damage.  Together with your support we are hopeful that we can understand more about an owl with limited vision's ability to hunt after recovering from injuries sustained from vehicle collisions.  Here's a great story about one of our owl patients that was recently released:

On November 21st, a local man was on his commute to work on Route 4 in Durham, NH when he noticed what looked like a bird laying face down on the side of the road.  He quickly turned around, and found that it was indeed a barred owl that had just been hit by a car and was struggling to stand.  Amazingly he was not the only person that wanted to help, a utilities service truck soon pulled over offering gloves or equipment to safely transport the raptor. The rescuer gently wrapped the owl in a jacket, careful to cover her head so that she would not be scared. He drove immediately to the Center for Wildlife, worrying that his patient was comfortable and not stressed, and wondering if she would be able to make it. 

Upon examination our Wildlife Specialists and volunteer veterinarian, Dr. John Means DVM, found that she was feisty and had no fractures, but had some damage to the structures in her eyes.  Incredibly, with supportive care, proper nutrition and housing, her eyes have already healed!  Our veterinarian almost couldn't believe his "eyes"! The local man that rescued the owl was given the honors of the release.  As the man held the bird she quietly took in her surroundings, then quickly flew to a tall pine, seemingly happy to be back home!  She looked back at us, then slipped off into the woods.  The rescuer shared "A big thank you to CFW Staff, volunteers, interns, and vet for rehabilitating this amazing barred owl! I feel very fortunate to have found her and had a place to bring her for the excellent care she needed after being hit on rt 4 in NH. The work you all do, and the care you give, is amazing, and I am thankful to have been able to release the owl tonight. The quality of care given at CFW, and the resilience of this barred, is evident in the quick recovery (found the day before Thanksgiving). Thank you all again!"

We hope you enjoyed the update, and are so grateful that you value our work and local wildlife, we truly could not do our work without you!


-Center for Wildlife staff, patients, and wildlife ambassadors 

Volunteer with Eastern screech owl patient
Volunteer with Eastern screech owl patient
Barred owl recovering from head trauma
Barred owl recovering from head trauma
Rescuer releases barred owl back into the wild!
Rescuer releases barred owl back into the wild!


We have been planning a new phase of this project and submitted a grant request to NWRA (National Association of Wildlife Rehabilitators) for partial sponsorship.

The project leader will be Dr. John Means, a local veterinarian and Center for Wildlife Board member.

The project abstract is as follows: Platform transmitting terminals (PTTs) will be affixed to two rehabilitated owls with unilateral ocular trauma. Their movements and survivorship will be tracked after release. The birds, a barred owl (Strix varia) and a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), will be made available by the Center for Wildlife, in Cape Neddick, Maine.  Both birds will be kept in rehabilitation until change in the visible damage to the eye (as assessed by opthalmascope) has ceased, indicating that remaining damage is permanent. Degree of ocular damage will be assessed by a veterinarian upon initial admission to Center for Wildlife, and again just prior to release. After undergoing rehabilitation, exhibiting adequate flight capability (as determined by staff rehabilitators), and demonstrating the ability to capture live prey in a large flight enclosure, the owls will be released back to the territory in which they were found. They will be tracked as long as possible, and a visual confirmation will be attempted if the birds do not move substantially for a week. If a bird dies, attempts will be made to recover the carcass, at which time radiographs and necropsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death.

Center for Wildlife Staff Tracks Owl
Center for Wildlife Staff Tracks Owl

We are pleased to report that our great horned owl successfully thrived for a little over 4 months (approximately 132 days), but saddened to report that she has indeed passed away.  The purpose of our study was to determine whether an owl with ocular damage could hunt well enough to take care of herself, especially during the winter season where many prey are hibernating, have migrated, or are taking cover under snow.  Thanks to this study it is clear that she was able to survive for quite sometime, and based on date of recovery of her body and no satellite movements we can determine that she passed away sometime in the beginning of March.  We had continued to work with Biodiversity Research Institute who offers expertise in field studies and research, and after receiving uncharacteristic satellite data determined that either the transmitter was dislodged or that she had passed away.  We were able to borrow their VHF receiver and GPS equipment and track down the great horned owl.  She was found on the shore in Harpswell, ME; a mainland off the coast of the islands that she had been discovered on, and travelled around for the majority of the time that we were able to track her.  

Center for Wildlife staff immediately brought her remains to the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostics Lab, a medical partner located at the University of New Hampshire.  Part of your funding made it possible to run a complete necropsy by their qualified staff, and try to determine cause of death.  Cause of death could not be determined definitively, however it was noted that she had a fractured radius, and was thin.  If she had been hit by a car, or suffered a fractured radius in another way, she would not have been able to hunt well enough to feed herself which could explain why she was thin.  

Although of course we would have loved the great horned owl to survive for the rest of her life span, we are very encouraged by these findings.  Chris Desorbo, the Wildlife Research Biologist working with us from Biodiversity Research Institute stated "It seems clear that your owl was able to survive despite the ocular injury for some time." Although we may not be able to draw definitive conclusions from one study, the data does show clearly that an owl with ocular damage has a great chance of surviving and caring for themselves for quite some time, and would not necessarily automatically starve to death upon release.  This is very hopeful news for great horned owls who may have been euthanized or automatically placed in captivity for life-time care due to permanent eye trauma.  There also was not much information about island dwelling owls or their movements in Maine, and this study has offered very valuable data.  Center for Wildlife staff, Biodiversity Research Institute's biologists, and the general public were amazed by the great horned owl's travels over the open ocean each night.  The data and maps also offer supporting data to the theory that great horned owls are dedicated to a territory and tend to hunt and live in one area.  

We are so grateful to the donors toward this research project.  There is little to no data or post-release studies on owls with ocular damage, or released patients at all due to no state or federal funding for wildlife medical care. Many centers including Center for Wildlife struggle each year to raise the funding to treat an increasing amount of patients, despite a decreasing amount of donations due to the economy.  Because of your support, we have taken the first step to understanding the best prognosis for a great horned owl with ocular damage.  We were able to recover the transmitter and it is in tact and can pay a fee to have it restored to it's full capacity and battery life (1.5 years).  This means that we will be able to place the transmitter on a new patient, and continue our important research.  Funding toward this project will continue to go toward the equipment, data processing, and staff time to study the next post-released owl.  Thank you!! 

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl's Movements Oct-March



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Organization Information

Center for Wildlife

Location: Cape Neddick, Maine - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.thecenterforwildlife.org
Center for Wildlife
Project Leader:
Kristen Lamb
Cape Neddick, ME United States

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