School scores goal with owl save

Raptor found by Port students, untangled from soccer net by teachers expected to be freed after recuperating at area wildlife hospital

A GREAT HORNED OWL was caught in a soccer net at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port Washington Sept. 20.
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

For the last week, students at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Port Washington have had one question —how’s the owl?

The owl is a great horned owl that was caught in a net at a soccer field next to the school Thursday morning, Sept. 20.

The raptor apparently became entwined in the net sometime that morning, perhaps while hunting, said Kristen Bustamante, manager of Pine View Wildlife Rehabilitation’s hospital.

It was discovered by students at recess about 10:30 a.m., and the youngster notified teachers, Principal Steve Sukawaty said.

Sixth-grade math teacher Eric Liebergen — who coincidentally is Port High’s varsity girls soccer coach —  said a teacher came into his room to ask if he could help free the bird, and he enlisted the help of sixth-grade science teacher Ryan Cowen and paraprofessional Jenny O’Neill, who coincidentally was a raptor trainer and educator with the environmental education program at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee for years.

O’Neill retrieved her leather falconry gloves from her car and joined the other two at the net, where the bird lay twisted in the net. It was on its back with its feet and wings stretched out.

“It was eerie,” she said, because the bird was still and quite.

Liebergen and Cowen snipped the net from around the owl, and when it was free they placed a towel over its eyes to calm the raptor. O’Neill held the bird.

“It was almost like I was cradling him in a raptor hold,” she said. 

A number of the students had gathered to watch, and Liebergen said they “let out a big cheer” when the bird was free.

The teachers contacted Pine View, and when the staff there recommended placing the owl in a box, students ran into the school to get one, he added.

When Bustamante arrived, the students were asked to be quiet and still to help the owl remain calm.

“The kids were awesome,” Sukawaty said. “They were like little statues.”

Bustamante said she feared the worst when she arrived, noting that the nylon ropes that make up the nets can cause considerable damage to the birds as they struggle to free themselves.

But this bird, she said, seemed relatively quiet and calm until she moved it to a carrier. 

“As soon as I grabbed her, she started flapping,” Bustamante said — a good sign that she was healthy.

“She was feisty from the beginning,” she said. 

Bustamante said the owl, an adult female with a beautiful light coloring and big eyes, may have had some bruising but was otherwise unharmed.

She was placed in a preflight cage over the weekend and immediately flew to the far end, and when the bird was transferred to a flight cage at Pine View Monday it immediately went to the highest perch it could find.

“She’s going to be ready to be released within the week,” Bustamante said.

Bustamante said she believes the bird was caught in the net when swooping down to catch prey, probably early Thursday morning. She made that judgment based on the fact the owl’s feathers were wet, she said, but the down underneath was not.

The bird is the third one that Pine View has rescued from a soccer net this year, Executive Director Jean Lord said.

“The numbers have doubled in the last three years,” she said.

In several of those cases, she said, the birds have been so damaged they had to be euthanized.

“Some horrendous damage can occur,” Lord said.

To help minimize that number, she and Bustamante both asked that players tip the goal over after practices and games, something that will minimize the area where a bird can get caught.

“When they get caught, it’s literally fight or flight for them,” Bustamante said. “If they’re stuck, they’re going to try to get out. They flap around and get into more of a bind. They wrap the net around themselves and they cause harm to themselves because they’re fighting so hard.”

One bird rescued earlier this season was found with the net wrapped around its neck six times, she said.

The nylon ropes can easily get pulled through the bird’s bones and tendons, she said.

“They look really big and scary but it’s all feathers,” Bustamante said. “They’re very fragile and they become frantic very easily.”

Liebergen said the teachers used the incident as a teachable moment.

“None of us has rescued an owl before,” he said. “We told the students, you have to work the problem and do the best you can.”

Students have been asking for updates on the bird’s progress, O’Neill added.

“They come running up and ask, ‘How’s the owl? Is it going to be OK?,’” she said. “It’s really cool how much they care.”

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