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WFAE's "Finding Joy" explores stories of joy and hope, offering you a bright spot in the news landscape.

What happens to orphaned owls? The Carolina Raptor Center has a foster program for that

Sunny Cooper at the Carolina Raptor Center
Nick de la Canal
Hospital Manager Sunny Cooper cradles a recently-orphaned owlet at the Carolina Raptor Center on Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

The great horned owl is one of the most of common owls living in North Carolina, and chances are you've heard their deep hoots echoing through the night.

But maybe you've never hear what their chicks sound like. They're much more chatty — some might even say screechy.

Their little screeches and clicks fill a small, green cabin in the woods behind the Carolina Raptor Center, where four youngsters have recently taken up residence. The cabin is off-limits to the public.

Inside the cabin, the center's hospital manager, Sunny Cooper, puts on a pair of thick gloves and reaches into a small, blue cardboard box. She pulls out a little fluffy owlet.

"We're going to just kind of pick him up like a basketball, or a volleyball," she says.

The baby owl clicks its beak and looks around with bewildered yellow eyes. Cooper cradles it, then lowers the bird into a kennel with soft towels and food.

"That's an unhappy owlet," she said.

Orphaned owls get a foster parent when they come to the center

The little owlet is an orphan. It's just a few weeks old and was separated from its parents when construction workers in Matthews cut down their tree. They likely didn't know owls were nesting there.

"Great horns like to nest way, way, way up in pine trees, between like 40 and 60 feet up in the air," Cooper said.

That's about four stories high. Usually, staff want to reunite chicks with their parents, but if a chick is abandoned or a nest is destroyed, the chicks are brought here to the owl orphan center.

However, in reality, it's more like a foster home.

"We want babies to be able to see an adult. It kind of helps them learn who they are, appropriate behaviors," Cooper said.

Four orphaned owls are living in a small, green cabin in the woods behind the Carolina Raptor Center that's closed off to the public.
Nick de la Canal
Four orphaned owls are living in a small, green cabin in the woods behind the Carolina Raptor Center that's closed off to the public.

The chicks live in one room, and an adult owl lives in another. They can see and talk to each other through a window with wooden slats.

Cooper peeks in on the foster mom. She's a majestic bird, with light and dark brown speckles and those tufted feathers that looks like horns.

"You can see that she's a little bit uncoordinated right now, and that's because her wing was wrapped for a long time," Cooper said.

The owl was rescued after getting tangled in barbed wire. Staff are nursing her to health while letting the chicks watch her and learn how to be a grown-up.

"When we walk in and the baby can see that the adult is afraid of us (people), that adult doesn't want anything to do with us, that's a behavior that they can also learn, like 'Oh — there's something that looks like me, that's afraid of this kind of common thing. I, too, should be afraid of this.'"

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'It's a lot of hard work'

As the hospital manager at the Raptor Center, it's Cooper's job to look after these birds and coordinate foster families with her team.

"It's a lot of hard work to get a single patient through the process. It's a lot of food. It's a lot of food prep. It's a lot of reviewing charts, treatment plans and things like that," Cooper said.

She's been doing this for five years, and not out of pure selflessness or just for a paycheck. She says she helps these avian patients, in part, for the joy she gets when, after months of intense care, she watches a recovered or grown-up bird released back into the wild.

"Here's a bird that you've seen from potentially death's door when they show up, or in really bad shape, who you and your team have worked really hard to nurse back to health and release," Cooper said.

These owlets still have several more weeks before they return to the trees around Charlotte. Same goes for the adult owl. If they hadn't been rescued, it's likely none would have survived.

This kind of work shows that while humans are often responsible for the destruction of habitat and wildlife, we're also capable of helping and looking after other species. That might say more about us, than a little baby owl.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal