This story was published in collaboration with Meghan E. Irons’ Reporting in Depth class at Boston University’s College of Communication.
In a spellbinding prelude to the Halloween season, an owl encounter enchanted children and adults alike at the Putterham Library of Brookline last week.
The library partnered with Mass Audubon, a nonprofit conservation organization, to welcome three animal ambassadors: an eastern screech owl, a barred owl and a barn owl.
“They’re a great learning tool. People love them,” said Mass Audubon education coordinator Tessa Holleran.
The crowd did indeed love them.
Riley Carey, who had her last birthday party at Mass Audubon, sat front and center throughout the event, cradling a small stuffed owl and whispering excitedly to her mom.
“I’m really into birds. Like, a lot,” said 11-year-old Miles Bergen, who got his passion from his grandfather. “I’m interested so I can keep with him when I go to his house,” he said.
Birds come to Mass Audubon when they can’t be returned to the wild, either because they’ve been injured or because they’ve imprinted on humans, Holleran explained at the start of the event.
They become imprinted when they grow very comfortable with humans and rely on them for things like food and shelter, she said. Sometimes people find these birds and take them in as pets, not knowing that doing so is illegal. By the time they realize their mistake and call officials, the birds have already become imprinted.
When Mass Audubon acquires a bird, raptor specialists typically attempt to return it to the wild by finding it a foster nest, she said. If the bird cannot be successfully placed in a foster nest in time, it becomes imprinted, and Mass Audubon’s wildlife sanctuary becomes its home.
At the event last week, Holleran set up a table of biofacts, including wings and skulls of various bird species. She also laid out a blue tarp to catch any bird poop. All three owls took advantage of this, much to the amusement of the audience.
The first owl she brought out was an eastern screech owl named Whinny. Holleran explained that despite their name, screech owls don’t screech; they whinny like horses.
Prior to coming to Mass Audubon, Whinny lived in a dead tree in someone’s backyard, Holleran said. The yard’s owners cut down the tree, not knowing it was home to an owl family. Whinny and her sibling survived the incident; their parents did not.
The small owl was met with hushed gasps, smiles, and lots of phone cameras as Holleran took her around the room for everyone to see. She explained that because Whinny was in a new environment, she was attempting to make herself look like a branch. She stood tall and narrow, and two ear tufts stuck out of the top of her head.
The next animal ambassador was a talkative barred owl named Willow. Her name came from the environment she was found in, Holleran said. Willow helped Holleran teach the audience about owl pellets, which, when dissected, grant insight to the bird’s whereabouts. If you come across an owl pellet, an owl is almost certainly nearby, Holleran said. She also revealed owls’ superpower: their near-silent flight.
The final animal ambassador was the spookiest: a barn owl named Casper. He got his name because barn owls’ eerie white faces and banshee-like screech lead them to often be mistaken for ghosts, Holleran said. Jaws dropped in the audience and children leapt out of their seats to get a closer look as she pulled Casper out of his box.
Casper helped Holleran teach about what people can do to help protect birds of prey.
The first lesson? Not littering. Litter that gathers on streets and roadways attracts rodents, and as birds swoop down to capture them, they can get hit by cars, Holleran explained.
Another way to help birds of prey: don’t use rodenticide, Holleran said. Birds that ingest rats treated with rodenticide can get sick and die. This also affects cats and other animals who eat rodents.