The great horned owl takes off from a corner perch and soars overhead in near total silence.
The stealthy bird of prey is not on the hunt. The young owl has been learning how to fly at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn.
Dr. Sarah Reich monitors her patients in a new flight barn, a huge, L-shaped structure where injured and orphaned raptors can exercise their wings before they’re released back into the wild. Maturing owls will master silent flight in search of a nighttime meal.
“They’re going to be using their hearing much more than their sight,” Reich said.
The new raptor barn provides much-needed space for larger birds – even bald eagles – to build stamina and condition their flight muscles during their recovery, caretakers said. The wood slat walls let in light and help absorb rough landings.
“He’s going to need his feathers fully grown in for us to really assess his flight,” Reich said of a turkey vulture recuperating from soft tissue trauma in his left wing.
As injured and baby animals keep coming through the doors, Willowbrook Wildlife Center has been in the midst of a $29.2 million transformation after years of overcrowding. The center was caring for more than 1,000 animals last week.
“We’re going to be moving from this situation of just putting any animal into any space and making it work to having these really nice, purposely thought out, species specific enclosures,” said Reich, the center’s head veterinarian.
Old enclosures have been torn down to make way for a 27,000-square-foot, two-story building that, once completed, will house a new animal clinic, classrooms, educational exhibits and visitor space.
Willowbrook’s oldest residents were kept in zoo-like cages along a visitor trail, leaving them exposed to the elements and vulnerable to stress. Permanently injured birds now are acclimating to what Willowbrook’s care team affectionately calls “Resident Hall.”
The new building gives 13 residents the choice of indoor and outdoor housing. Wildlife keepers custom built perches, platforms and ramps to help disabled birds get around their larger enclosures.
“They’ll be nice and healthy and happy,” Reich said.
Skylar, the American kestrel, was the first bird to make the move.
She was found in Chicago 12 years ago with her talons stuck in a rat trap.
Skylar developed arthritis as a result of the foot injury and requires medication three times a day. Many of Willowbrook’s residents are arthritic and do not tolerate the weather changes that younger birds can, Reich said.
“Now all we have to do is just queue them to come inside, so we’re working on training them all,” said Alicia Biewer, the center’s resident wildlife supervisor.
Skylar’s trainers thought she would adjust well to her new surroundings. Sure enough, cameras showed the kestrel navigating her indoor habitat at night and using her nesting box.
“She took food from us within a couple of hours,” Biewer said. “And within a couple of days, she was flying in and out no problem.”
Willowbrook also is making a big transition. Out of concern for their welfare, the center no longer is displaying animals that would not survive in the wild.
“The sheer amount of training that went into some of these guys just to make them comfortable with us, not even loving us, just comfortable with us, is a big testament to our resident care team,” Reich said. “But most of these animals don’t want to be in captivity.”
Resident Hall was built on the north edge of the DuPage County Forest Preserve property, moving non-releasable animals from public areas. Willowbrook experts said those private environments will be less stressful for animals born in the wild.
“Once our resident animals do pass away, given that they are quite old, we don’t plan on replacing them with new animals, so these spaces will actually revert into rehab spaces,” Reich said.
A pair of three-legged raccoons, Buddy and Girlfriend, also have been exploring their new enclosure, equipped with stairs, hammocks and a foraging bin so they can dig for peanuts.
Biewer gave a bobcat ice and molted feathers to enjoy in his new home. The 18-year-old resident ended up at Willowbrook after being hit by a car in southern Illinois.
“Enrichment is just ... really key to getting these animals to settle into their habitats,” she said.
On the rehab side, five young peregrine falcons are among the first patients to use the new raptor barn enclosures. When juveniles leave the nest, sometimes the first flight doesn’t go so well, especially since peregrine nest sites are on high ledges, Reich said.
One of the falcons was found dehydrated and clinging to a tablecloth at an outdoor restaurant in Chicago. All five are working their way up to the L-shaped space for their final flight conditioning – the last step of their recovery before being set free in the wild.
Previously, Willowbrook would have to transfer eagles and other large raptors elsewhere because the center had only a 100-foot flight loop. That circular structure made it difficult for Reich to assess patients for symmetrical flight.
The new space allows Willowbrook to keep larger birds throughout the entire rehabilitation process, Reich said.
“Now we get a nice straight shot that’s much larger and much better for these guys,” she said.