A second chance in the sky: Rehabbed great horned owl returns to wild

A great horned owl sits in a tree after being released at Campton Hills Forest Preserve on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. The owl was rehabilitated at the Anderson Humane Society in Elburn after an injury and being diagnosed with West Nile Virus.

After weeks of caring for a sick young great horned owl, rehabbers from Anderson Humane got the payoff for their efforts Sept. 15 when the bird reluctantly walked out of a transport cage at Campton Forest Preserve, looked around and then soared to a nearby tree.

“This is the best feeling. This is why I do what I do,” said Stephanie Franczak, a wildlife rehabilitation manager at Anderson. “Release day is the end game. Seeing him come in grounded, unable to stand or feed himself and now watching the strong flight to that tree is literally why I’m here.”

Anderson Humane's Alex Schwander holds open the cage door as a great horned owl returns to the wild Friday at Campton Forest Preserve. The owl was nursed back to health at Anderson's wildlife center in Elburn. (Rick West – Daily Herald Media Group)

The young owl, likely between 1 and 2 years old, was brought to Anderson in South Elgin on Aug. 6 after a Campton Hills resident saw him on the ground, unable to fly and not moving from where he sat. Campton Hills police took him to Anderson.

The owl was emaciated, infested with louse flies and couldn’t unclench one of his talons. Franczak said they suspect the owl was suffering from West Nile virus.

“Willowbrook Wildlife Center (in Glen Ellyn) has taken in over 70 birds with West Nile in the last month, so it’s that time of year,” she said.

The owl also appeared to have an upper respiratory infection. It was treated with medications, fluids and a supplemental feeding tube until it could eat solid food.

Anderson Humane staff nursed a sick owl back to health at their wildlife center in Elburn. They believe the owl had West Nile virus and another infection. (Rick West – Daily Herald Media Group)

Franczak said the owl started to perk up in just a few days.

“Pretty quickly after the antifungal medication, he was using that talon just fine and he was eating like a little monster,” she said. “Once they start eating and you’ve got the virus under control, they start getting better really fast.”

The owl spent the past few weeks in a larger flight cage outside Anderson’s wildlife center in Elburn, rebuilding its atrophied muscles and regaining its endurance.

“He’s been doing fabulously ever since we moved him,” Franczak said at the rehab center earlier last week.

Anderson officials knew the owl was ready to take on the wild when an unexpected guest made its way into the enclosure.

“A chipmunk got into the cage and it was the wrong cage for that chipmunk because the owl got him really quickly,” she said. “We knew if he had the capacity to hunt and could use his talon fully, he was doing great.”

Franczak said they had to guess based on where they found the owl as to where it made its home before. She said it’s important to release the owl near the area it came from so he can find familiar sources of food and reconnect with his mate if he has one.

Even if they are off a bit, she said, the owl should be able to get his bearings quickly.

“They have such a good GPS,” she said. “They’re so intelligent, it should find its place. Otherwise, they are pretty good at adapting.”