The Cute and the Fluffy

Everyone has a thing for cute, fluffy animals (more often than not, those two traits go together). If the animal is a baby, it only adds on that extra bit of adorableness. If someone doesn't like cute, fluffy, baby animals, they either don't have a heart, or they're lying. The animal I will talk about in this blog post is both cute and fluffy (in a feathery kind of way), but not a baby. In any case, it's definitely high up on the fluffy-cuteness scale. 'Twas the night before Christm ... No, wait, it was actually during the day. And on January 3. Anyway, back on track.

The little package came in the form of a Northern Saw-whet Owl. It is one of the smallest species of true (or typical) owls found in North America, and is about the size of a American Robin. Saw-whet owl weights vary from 54 to 151 grams, making this species smaller than the other fluffy and cute, but often grumpy-looking, Eastern Screech-owl which is more commonly found in Virginia. The Northern Saw-whet can be found all across the country during winter (when they migrate south, often due to lack of sufficient food supply) and are generally present year-round in the more northern parts, as well as the Rocky Mountains. The total range of the Northern Saw-whet goes from southern Canada and Alaska, to the central mountains of Mexico. Actually rather common (in their northern range at least), they're hard to spot as they like to hide in dense vegetation in coniferous or mixed forests. The small size of the saw-whet obviously works in their favor as well. They prefer riparian areas, next to rivers and streams, due to the abundance of prey, which is mice.

Saw-whet owls use old small raptor or woodpecker nests as their own, or they’ll nest in tree cavities. A female can lay up to six eggs in one clutch. They sometimes have more than one clutch per breeding season, each clutch having a different father. The male hunts while the female incubates the eggs. Traditional gender roles, perhaps, but nobody seems to complain. As with all owls, their left and right ear are placed vertically asymmetrical and each ear even has a different shape, making them excellent tools to pinpoint a prey in even complete darkness. Their call, a high-pitched too-too-too, has been compared to the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whet-stone (hence the name, so the legend goes). To some others, it sounds like the alarm of a delivery truck backing up. To each their own.

This particular patient, number 15-0006, coming in at only 74 grams, got itself stuck in a barb-wired fence in Amherst County. A rescuer got it out, brought it to a local permitted rehabber who then transferred the little fuzzball to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, and straight into our hearts. Heralded as the cutest thing ever (take that, squirrels), the bird soon became everyone's favorite patient. Pictures were posted on Facebook, went locally viral, and those who weren't working at the Center at that moment wished they were. Again, yours truly included. A storm of awes and squeaks and teehees sounded within the Center from the sight of one tiny little owl.

The Saw-whet had no obvious injuries aside from a left wing droop. Radiographs showed no obvious fractures or other injuries, thought it was difficult to see details on radiographs due to the owl's small size. Further examination showed no more conclusive answers. It could be a dislocated shoulder, it could be nerve damage. It received a body wrap bandage and all the attention you would expect toward a rock star. It got some mice to nibble on. Time might tell what its ultimate fate would be. After all, it seemed perfectly fine otherwise. Bright and alert, it would clap its little beak and try to fend off handlers with tiny, fuzzy feet, only adding to its adorableness.

Unfortunately, not all stories have a happy ending. Despite seemingly perfectly healthy, the little owl was found dead on January 6 in the afternoon by myself. Its tiny body flat on the ground, no longer clapping its beak, no longer fending off with its feet. As of this writing, the cause of death is still unknown. It could have possibly been sheer stress. Maybe it could not handle its days in the spotlight. Like other great people in the center of attention like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Amy Winehouse, its time had come too soon. But like these great artists, it will continue to live in a special place in all of our hearts. It had a short, brief passage, but it rocked our world.

Rest in cute, fluffy peace, little owl.

WCV Class of 2014

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