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Free to fly – barred owl released in St. Peters

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A barred owl awaiting release into the wild

The caged barred owl probably didn’t give a hoot about making a public appearance before a crowd of interested admirers, many of them youngsters dressed in Halloween costumes, but the reward for a few minutes of fright was a flight to freedom.

The owl, who had been injured and nursed to health at the World Bird Sanctuary in Valley Park, became the star attraction at the city of St. Peters’ Halloween Carnival on Oct. 22. The carnival featured indoor Halloween activities such as family-friendly games, crafts, hayrides and food. City officials and staff as well as parents, small children and other onlookers gathered outside the city’s recycling facility on Ecology Drive as Cathy Cox, a sanctuary volunteer, took the owl out of its small carrier cage.

Clad in protective gloves, Cox held the owl on her arm and walked it around to the “oohs” and “ahs” of kids and their parents. These owls are typically 16 to 25 inches long with a wingspan that can reach more than three feet.

“We [the sanctuary] have about 400 birds each year; those are just the ill and injured,” Cox said later. “Anything that comes in wild is naturally a potential release. The only reason we keep it on is if it’s not so common a species or is too injured to release.”

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Children get an up-close look at a barred owl in St. Peters.

Barred Owls are a common species in this part of the country. The area around the recycling center already has a strong population of hawks and other raptors. For example, a large hawk perched atop a utility pole at least 100 yards away to watch the festivities.

The birds are there because the recycling center is located amid some wetlands and groves of trees just north of Interstate 70, east of Mid Rivers Mall Drive – a place where city officials hope the owl will call home.

“They know where to live; if there wasn’t enough food here they wouldn’t stick around,” Cox said.

City officials appreciate the birds of prey’s help in reducing rodent populations. However, getting rid of rodents in other ways can have unintended consequences. Putting out poison can harm birds of prey.

“When you poison those rodents you really don’t know what else you’re poisoning because when those rodents go staggering out, those hawks say, ‘That’s an easy catch. It’s the same as you directly feeding the birds poison,” Cox said.

Claire Toledo,  a St. Peters health supervisor, added that, a few years ago, city officials noted a large number of ill birds and plotted their locations on maps. She said city officials went to the center of these areas and encouraged businesses not to use harmful poisons.

Claire Toledo

Claire Toledo

Toledo had the honor of letting the bird go. She wore heavy, elbow-length gloves to protect her from the owl’s sharp talons as she held him by his legs. Asked if she had volunteered, Toledo said, “I didn’t know I was releasing the bird;” then added, “It was an honor.”

Cox handed the bird to Toledo and the crowd of 30 or more onlookers parted to allow a path for the bird to fly away. With a heave, Toledo let go and the owl immediately made a beeline for a nearby grove of trees.

“It was cool,” Toledo said of the release.

The owl didn’t stick around for a curtain call.

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