FRISCO — Wildlife rehabilitator Lou Browning slowly reached into the small cage and withdrew a barred owl clutching a makeshift stand.
It was untethered and free to fly. But the gentle bird, stocky and more than a foot tall, only watched Browning with big, black watery eyes.
“Owls are a lot more stable and subtle than hawks,” Browning said.
Browning suspects that the round-faced bird was struck by a vehicle while swooping after prey earlier this month. The collision left her blind in the right eye.
Browning peered into the eye with a bright light. The pupil remained dilated and the retina was detached. Not good news. Likely, she will not recover her sight.
Browning will test her soon to see whether she can survive in the wild, using one eye and her keen hearing to catch mice, a favorite meal.
Browning is federally licensed and volunteers his time to operate the nonprofit Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation Inc.
He cares for an average of 250 birds a year at a small clinic set on 5 acres. The Outer Banks habitat attracts a wide array of birds.
Browning sees natural ailments; those like the owl’s, which result from unhappy contact with humans; and some problems that concern him more, those caused by environmental contamination.
Injured raptors or birds of prey are most often struck by vehicles, but necropsies reveal that pesticides also are killing predators. The birds ingest the poison through their prey.
Browning last summer was unable to save a great horned owl so weakened. Internal bleeding, lack of balance and wobbly legs are tell-tale signs.
Microscopic plastics found in products such as synthetic cloth and facial cleaners also sicken large birds. Only expensive tests can identify those toxins, he said.
“Things going on that are detrimental to wildlife first, are going to have ramifications on humans eventually,” he said.
Still, raptor populations generally appear to be thriving in North Carolina. The state’s mild climate and setting in a migration zone attracts 18 species.
The North Carolina Raptor Center received 20 eagles last year, nearly double the average, said Dave Scott, a staff veterinarian. More than 1,000 raptors were admitted to the center last year, the most in the nation, maybe in the world. Scott says,
“There are not many species we don’t have.”
His center treated only one raptor last year suffering from rodenticide poisoning, but that could be because others are dying unseen in the wild, Scott said.
The 57-year-old Browning similarly stays busy. He splints broken wings, sews up wounds, and at times judiciously administers medicine.
He also takes in sea turtles stunned by winter cold.
He has patched a box turtle’s shell, plucked ticks off an osprey, extracted fishhooks from a pelican’s wings, and hydrated a heron. Flying patients get regular wing-strengthening workouts in a flight enclosure.
Browning set a wing of a peregrine falcon weeks ago. She depends on Browning for now.
Such falcons can dive at more than 200 mph, moving faster than any other animal. Sometimes that speed contributes to their undoing.
Browning’s young falcon may have been struck by a vehicle or injured itself slamming its claws into larger prey such as a duck. It may have missed its quarry entirely and hit something else.
Raptors are a specialty for Browning, who is a falconer in his spare time.
He pulled on a black leather glove, picked up a dead baby chick and offered it to the falcon. It fluttered by a couple of times, not quite sure.
“C’mon, Sweet Pea,” Browning cooed. “C’mon.”
She flew to his arm, quickly snatched the chick from his other hand, and landed nearby to munch. Browning hopes to release her soon - a happy ending for a wildlife rehabilitator.