Hunters in the Sky

| October 2, 2017 | 0 Comments

Nancy Commey is pictured with a beautiful barn owl.

In 2013 I met Nancy Conney, founder and operator of Sky Hunters, a non-profit organization that rescues about 350 harmed raptors a year. Last July she was June’s “make up” speaker to the Mission Hills Garden Club.

Conney gave us some background. Of the birds rescued each year, approximately 80 per cent are released to the wild. Only birds eventually able to feed themselves are saved. Puppets feed baby birds to prevent their imprinting on humans. The babies’ environment is suited to their development. Before being released, they graduate to an enormous enclosure where they can practice flying. Sky Hunters is the only sanctuary in San Diego County that may legally keep a few non-releasable birds in captivity. These raptors are used for educational purposes.

Should you find an injured bird or baby that has fallen from its nest, do NOT feed it. For babies, a basket for berries lined with a towel can be nailed to the tree from which the baby fell. Put something to screen the basket from the ground to discourage predators. Its parents will find and continue to feed it as long as is necessary. For an injured bird, get a towel, a cardboard closable box with air holes small enough to prevent escape, and heavy gloves. Cover the bird’s head and with gloves on, place the bird gently into the box. Call or go to the nearest rescue facility. The night of Nancy’s talk, she was picking up a rescue route home to the sanctuary.

There are only six groups of raptors: owls, falcons, hawks, eagles, kites, and ospreys. Conney introduced the smallest of the falcons, a male kestrel. The size of a robin with gleaming slate blue, tan and brown feathers, he is perfectly healthy– “a handsome devil,” says Conney. Because he was hand raised for his first year by the woman who found him on the ground, he can never be released. After a year, she “left him at a veterinarian’s office. ‘You take him,’ she said. “I’ve had him a year, and that’s enough!’” Thus a kestrel, the picture of health, lives at Sky Hunters where he may remain for perhaps fifteen years. In the wild, his expected lifetime would be three years.

A wild raptors’ mortality rate rises sharply from several causes. Often prey ingest poisons which may kill a predator that ingests it. Encounters with BB guns or cars also cause premature death.

Raptors mate for life. They court, build their nests, and the female lays eggs. Usually larger than the male, she can warm the eggs and later her babies while dad hunts food for the family. At some point, dad babysits letting mom go off to hunt. Depending on the food supply, the parents may have one or more clutches, but once the last babies have fledged, the parents fly off in different directions, “on separate vacations,” says Conney. They will meet again at the nesting site, “Same Time, Next Year.”

Conney returned the kestrel to his cage and brought out a tiny grey and brown-feathered creature – a screech owl. Conney surmises that when this species first was discovered, some other bird must have screeched. The noise was attributed wrongly to the little owl. He actually makes a sound like a ball bouncing or he makes the chirp/purr like a cat’s. His noises are quite sweet.

This little guy had a broken wing when a woman found him. She turned him over to a rescue group who took him for veterinary care. Although the bones knitted, he sustained irreparable muscular damage and cannot fly. Like the kestrel, he became another permanent guest at Sky Hunters.

Owls differ from other raptors. Their eyes face front with no peripheral vision. Luckily they have extra neck vertebrae enabling them to turn their heads 270 degrees. “Do you know why they don’t turn their heads 360 degrees?” asked Conney. “If they could, their heads would fall off!”

Owls’ faces differ from those of other birds. Theirs are dish-shaped, acting like ear trumpets. The ears are asymmetrically placed on their heads enabling them to pinpoint prey more accurately for night hunting than they could with sight. Having hollow bones and a plethora of feathers, owls fly absolutely silently.

This owl allowed Conney to create two tufts of feathers on his crown. Screech owls raise these tufts themselves for females who seem to find them sexy. They also rub beaks as part of their foreplay. These birds are cavity nesters. With their coloring, their bodies resemble the bark of a tree, perfect camouflage for one nesting in a tree’s knothole.

Our last raptor was a barn owl. He was considerably larger than the other two birds, perhaps the size of a leghorn hen. They like nesting in barns, birdhouses, and palms. Their homes must be near trees giving the young birds a safety net if the flight goes awry. While barn owls can live as long as 20 years, in the wild they die young, often hit by cars as they fly low to the ground in search of prey. With their big dish-shaped faces and asymmetrical ears, they can accurately pinpoint a mouse or other small animal burrowing underground.

The barn owl’s wingspan is three feet, tip to tip. One wears gloves to prevent its talons from piercing your arm. These talons automatically lock whatever they are holding to prevent dropping their prey. Conney showed us how wide this owl can open his beak. They often swallow prey whole. Their ears have flaps they can operate at will. Their voices are hideous and loud, so when the babies get too noisy, the parents merely close their ears. It must be nice to be able to do that.

It was a great meeting.

We will be meeting at 6 p.m., Tuesday, October 24 at the Mission Hills Nursery, located at 1525 Fort Stockton to listen to Brijette Peña of the San Diego Seed Company as she will be teaching us all about seeds. This class will cover a wide range of subjects pertaining to seeds such as seed selection, seed saving and why local seed production matters. Participants can expect to learn about the history of the seed industry, how they can save seeds from their gardens and how to properly start vegetables, herb and flowers from seed. This will be very educational and interesting.

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About the Author ()

Barbara Strona is a native Californian who grew up in the Mid-West and Los Angeles. She and her architect husband, Carl, came to San Diego in 1968 and have lived in Mission Hills since early 1971. Barbara received a Bachelor of Arts from Scripps College with a major in English, and a minor in Art. She attended UCLA graduate school and received a General Secondary Credential. She taught English in Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, and at Point Loma High School. She has been a Realtor specializing in residential sales since 1984. Her passions include her job, reading, writing, foreign languages and foreign countries, animals (feathered or furry), theatre, and her family: husband, two adult children and two grandsons.