Don’t expect thanks from the owls, hawks and other birds that are treated at the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington after being hit by cars. It is a common injury as rural areas are developed. The wild birds just want to fly away.
ARLINGTON — Patient No. 1938 at the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center is a great horned owl. Her injuries are such that she can’t stand up. She rests silently in one of the cages built into a wall, the front covered by a blanket so she doesn’t get stressed.
The center takes in about 2,000 animals a year — half of them birds that range from owls to mallard ducks, the other half mammals that include weasels and coyote pups. It’s a distinctly modest place, reached by two-lane country roads.
The office is in an old one-room schoolhouse. Most of the animals are kept and treated in a clean but drab one-story structure of improvised architecture.
In one manner or another, the animals end up at Sarvey because the wilds that were their homes have been developed. Half of the raptors, which include owls, come in after being hit by a vehicle. Sometimes they have the bad luck of encountering some other form of development.
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Larry Brainard, the store manager at Dwayne Lane’s Auto Family in Everett, remembers what happened with No. 1938 as the dealership opened a little after 8 o’clock the morning of Nov. 10.
“We have some floor-to-ceiling windows. We watched it fly right into the glass. He had a rat in his mouth that he had killed,” Brainard says.
Brainard refers to No. 1938 as a “he.”
At the center, No. 1938 is a “she.”
The truth is it’s hard to tell the sex of an owl. In a pair, the female is the larger one, but that’s of no use if you encounter just one.
Brainard says he remembers that the owl was being chased — “harassed” — by a bunch of crows, the conniving thieves of the bird world. They wanted the owl’s rat.
The dealership’s staff gathered around the owl.
“He was just lying there, totally alert. He could move his head to the side. His legs were fully extended like he had some nerve shock,” Brainard says.
The staff began calling animal shelters, eventually reaching the Sarvey center.
The animals that are brought in are not given names, just the next number in line for the year, as the expectation is that they will return to the wild. These are not supposed to be pets.
Acts of compassion
But there is something about seeing a wild creature that will surely die if not helped that brings out the best in our humanity.
“It had sweet, beautiful eyes,” says Brainard. He put the owl in a cardboard box, draped a towel over it, and placed it in a brand-new Lincoln Voyager. “It’s a real soft, quiet ride,” he says.
Patient No. 1974 is a barred owl, described in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website as having “soulful brown eyes and brown-and-white-striped plumage.” It gets its name from the decorative feathers that form vertical lines of brown and white.
No. 1974 was brought in by Marysville police Officer Bryant Gerfin, 30, on the morning of Dec. 6.
He works a noon-to-midnight shift, and after it ended he was driving on Highway 530 to his Arlington home.
“I see an owl sitting in the middle of the lane. I slow down. It doesn’t move at all, which is odd,” Gerfin says. He turned his patrol car around, got out, and gently pushed the owl with his foot, thinking it would fly away. It didn’t.
“I could tell it was not feeling good. I talked to it for 15 to 20 minutes. You know, ‘Hey, buddy,’ kind of chattering it, so it knows I’m not gonna bite it,” he says.
Gerfin got gloves from his car and picked up the owl at waist height, hoping it’d fly.
“It dove into the dirt,” he says.
The officer wrapped it in a hooded sweatshirt and drove home, put the owl in a box and covered it with a towel.
He did pet the owl on top of its head, brushing its feathers. Owls have very soft feathers, and your fingers sink down into them.
“He closed his eyes, like a cat does,” says Gerfin.
And so one more animal ended up in the care of the Sarvey center, creatures brought in by a wide range of people, tough hunter-types and urbanized office workers.
“It’s an act of compassion. It’s hard to walk away from something suffering,” says Suzanne West, director of the center.
For some, encountering a wild animal is a new experience. It’s warm and fuzzy, and it’d be your friend, right?
West says one time a group brought in a wild eastern cottontail rabbit, described in reference material as having “big eyes and a tail that is puffy white on the underside.”
She says, “It wasn’t hurt. They were taking selfies with it. They don’t always have common sense in how to deal with the animals.”
The rabbit, she says, died of shock.
Miki Forsberg, 32, is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who works at the center. Day in and day out, she watches over the creatures.
Sometimes the prospects for the patients are not good.
No. 1938, the owl that smacked into the car dealership window, has spinal trauma. It still can’t stand up.
“We’ve seen small progress,” says Forsberg. “We’ll see if in three to four weeks she’s standing up.”
If things don’t improve, the owl will be put to sleep with a dose of sodium pentothal.
The prognosis for No. 1974, the one brought in by the police officer, is good. It has some head trauma and an injured eye and is getting antibiotics and medicine. If all goes well, it’ll be released in four to six weeks.
A success story
On this particular day this week, another success story is taking place.
No. 1942, a red-railed hawk, had been brought in on Nov. 12, “found on the ground, cold and wet, not flying away,” says West. It gets its name from its obvious red tail, and is North America’s most common hawk, the one that on a car ride you see turning circles over open fields.
“He was a little on the thin side. Maybe he had ingested something,” West says.
After a month of fluids, rest, a diet of thawed frozen mice and letting him fly around in an outdoor enclosure with mesh on top, No. 1942 was deemed ready to go.
Alistair Wressnigg, 29, a critical-care nurse’s assistant, volunteers at the center on Tuesdays. He was raised in the area and talks about hikes in the North Cascades.
“I decided to give back somehow,” he says.
He put No. 1942 inside a large dog carrier and drove 35 miles south to Duvall. This was near where No. 1942 had been found, so presumably it would have some familiarity with the area.
Wressnigg found a large farm field in the area and got permission from the owner. He figured it’d have mice, voles and, in a pinch, slugs for the hawk to eat.
He walked out into the field, pulled the blanket off the front of the carrier, opened it, and in a few seconds the hawk came out.
Then he just took off.
If this had been a DreamWorks movie, the bird maybe would have turned back and done a thank-you pass at its human savior.
But in real life, there is no such sentimentality from the owls and hawks.
Wressnigg watched the tree where the hawk had landed to survey the area.
“I’m free,” he says, explaining just what he believes the hawk was thinking.