When Owl Meets Insulation

From the owl’s point of view, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The enormous house was halfway built, the windows framed but the glass not yet installed. Most of the inside was still a shell, but beneath the ceiling there were rafters. Just before dawn, the small Western Screech Owl flew inside, perched on a beam, and settled in for a good day’s sleep.

Several hours later he was knocked off his perch by a blast of foam insulation, delivered from below by a man with a hose. The owl hurtled two stories to the ground, covered with what looked like whipped cream. Within a minute, the foam had hardened to the consistency of hard plastic.

Screech owls are miniature masters of camouflage, and the man with the hose hadn’t even seen him. He saw him fall, though, and immediately alerted the foreman, who put the owl in a box, grabbed his cellphone, and eventually reached Injured and Orphaned Wildlife in Campbell, CA. Jeanne Fouts arrived soon after.

How do you remove hardened insulation from an 8-inch screech owl? This was a new one for Jeanne, as well as for her fellow wildlife rehabilitators, whom she contacted via phone and internet. No one had ever encountered this specific problem before, although many had removed various forms of tar and glue from hapless birds. Nail polish remover could remove the hardened foam, but it would destroy the bird’s feathers and couldn’t be used around his eyes, one of which was foamed shut. Jeanne gave him fluids, and carefully scraped the area around his mouth and nares (nostrils) so he could breathe more easily. Meanwhile she fielded suggestions and offers of help, until a rehabber friend called and told her that International Bird Rescue would admit him.

“It’s a good thing I have a Prius!” said Jeanne, grabbed the owl’s crate, and drove the 70-mile journey to IBR’s San Francisco Bay Wildlife Rescue Center.

IBR was formed to save oiled aquatic birds. Their highly trained teams travel to disaster sites, train others in seabird rescue, and care for oiled and otherwise injured aquatic birds at their two California rescue centers. “Ok, so technically he wasn’t a seabird,” says Jeanne now. “They still helped him!”

Dr. Rebecca Duerr and her team anesthetized the owl, then carefully removed the hardened foam with forceps and tweezers. Of special concern were his eyes, as one eye had pieces of foam both inside and outside the lid – as their website describes, like “a contact lens made out of insulation foam.” This was removed, as were small chunks from his mouth, where he had tried to preen the stuff off.

The operation was a success. The following day IBR called Jeanne, and told her that the owl was ready to be picked up. “Already?” she said, drove the 140-mile round trip once again, and has been caring for him ever since. “The abrasions around his eyes have healed,” she says. “His corneas look good, and both eyes are responding to light. He had an appointment with an avian opthamologist on January 10, and by then the ulcers caused by the foam had healed. I know he has a concussion – he probably fell on his head – but he’s improving steadily. He’s clacking at me now, which is a good sign.” Owls snap their beaks like castanets as a warning; wildlife rehabilitators are one of the few animal caregivers who are delighted when their charges are clearly not happy to see them.

It was a lot of effort and expertise for a small bird whose numbers are plentiful. Hardline biologists, who count populations, not individuals, would deem it all a waste of time. The internet’s provocateurs, desperate for attention, mock these kinds of efforts. Why go to the trouble?

There are logical reasons: a bizarre event had occurred, strange injuries were suffered, and people used their skills and ingenuity to fix them. The protocol developed that day might someday be used to help an endangered species.

But why should people have to justify what they do, as long as it’s legal and helps another? A wrong – an unintentional wrong, but still a wrong – was righted. People who didn’t even know each other worked together to help a small creature who was powerless to help himself. The wife of the construction foreman wrote this to the IBR blog site: ( http://blog.bird-rescue.org/index.php/2012/01/a-western-screech-owl-in-desperate-need/ ):

“(My husband) called me and sent me images (that) day .. I was in tears and really hoping the little “hoot” would make it. Our daughter loves owls and I just showed her how her daddy helped save him. Thank you so much for caring for him, and we are so happy people like you dedicate your lives to saving those of others.”

Sometimes I think that humanity has an inexhaustible capacity for arrogance, cruelty, and violence. But every once in awhile, it is a species to which I am proud to belong.

Donations may be sent to:

Injured and Orphaned Wildlife, c/o Norma Campbell, 37 Decorah Lane, Campbell, CA 95008

International Bird Rescue, 444 W. Ocean Boulevard,  Suite 777, Long Beach, California 90802

First photo by Jeanne Fouts; second and third by International Bird Rescue.


About suziegilbert

I live in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley and have been rehabbing birds for over twenty years. I’ve written a memoir about the slippery slope all rehabbers eventually slide down, called “Flyaway: How a Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings,” published in 2009 by HarperCollins; and a children's book called "Hawk Hill," published in 1996 by Chronicle Books. I also write all kinds of freelance content. Please see my website, www.suziegilbert.com
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10 Responses to When Owl Meets Insulation

  1. Tamara hanley says:

    Such a beautiful little Owl, and a very happy ending. Hope he can be released soon.

  2. suziegilbert says:

    Kudos to those folks in CA!

  3. Casey says:

    When asked why he bothered to “waste” his time helping animals, nature writer Ted Williams answered “Because God put ’em here, that’s why. What the hell makes you think you’ve got a better plan?”

    I have yet to hear a better answer.

  4. Marion says:

    My husband is a long distance runner. He was on a run In December of 2011, and happened upon a Merlin Falcon on a country road. The Merlin had suffered such severe head trauma that this wild bird allowed him to cradle it in his hands and carry him. Cradling the Merlin, he eventually spoke to a local resident and asked if she had a carton, or container of any kind that he could use. She did drum up a carton, and he walked miles back home – with said Falcon.

    We were referred to Jeanne Fouts via another dedicated individual who had been affiliated with an organization that rehabilitates wild birds.

    Jeanne readily accepted the Merlin, and with her dedication, care, and deep love of all creatures, nurtured this Merlin back to health. This is no mean feat. I understand that the success rate of rehabilitating a Merlin is somewhere between slim to zero – but Jeanne did it.

    The Merlin was released in the same area about a month later – in fine form. My husband has since spotted a Merlin in the area – no idea if it’s the same one – but we like to think it is. The Screech Owl is in very capable hands – and if Jeanne has her way; the owl will make it. Thank God for the Jeanne’s in our world.

    • suziegilbert says:

      Thanks for that great story, Marion – I’ll bet it is the same Merlin! How great of your husband (and you) for rescuing him and finding Jeanne and making sure the bird was safely delivered to her. Thank God there are people like you and your husband who make our work possible.

      • Marion says:


        My husband was so embarrassed when he pitched at Jeanne’s front door – he was still in his running gear all sweaty and in dire need of a shower! But the Merlin was our greatest concern – so he broke a land speed record getting the bird to her from Morgan Hill to Palo Alto! Fortunately, the Merlin was Jeanne’s greatest concern also ….. not my husband’s appearance! I am so glad you enjoyed a success story ….

      • suziegilbert says:

        Love those success stories … and I’d call your husband a hero (and I’ll bet Jeanne did, too!)

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