A barred owl that drew crowds of onlookers while swooping around at Farewell Bend Park earlier this year may well be dead.
The owl was seen from mid-January into last month, regularly hunting for mice and voles along the Deschutes River just upstream of the Old Mill District. It then disappeared about a month ago.
Two photographers found a dead owl March 3 about 10 feet from the Farewell Bend Park picnic area, according to a Listserv of Central Oregon birders. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist confirmed it was a barred owl.
“The location where it was found kind of makes you think it was the same bird," said Jeff Cooney, a veterinary professor at Central Oregon Community College.
Cooney on Thursday performed a necropsy on the owl at COCC to determine its cause of death. He didn't find a clear answer, but said the bird was likely ailing before it died about a week before it was found.
The owl was emaciated and battered, with a dislocated left shoulder and lower jaw, as well as a crushed right eye socket, said Jeanette Bonomo, a veterinary technician who assisted in the necropsy and took radiographs of the bird. Bonomo said the owl was likely sick before it was hit by a passing car.
“It was really underweight," she said.
The dead owl weighed just more than a pound, Bonomo said in an email, while female barred owls typically weigh between 13⁄4 pounds and 21⁄4 pounds.
Prior to the necropsy the Fish and Wildlife Service retrieved the bird and Jennifer O'Reilly, a fish and wildlife biologist for the agency, wrote an email to the Listserv, saying the cause of death for the owl was undetermined. She did rule out some possibilities though.
“It did not starve, was not electrocuted and was not shot," she said in an email March 6.
A cousin to the northern spotted owl, the barred owl has moved west from the East Coast over the past 100 years. The names of both owls describe their chest and belly feather patterns. While the spotted owl has been listed as a threatened species since 1990, the barred owl is not a listed species, although it is protected by the federal migratory bird act and other laws.
The barred owl at Farewell Bend Park first appeared Jan. 20. As word spread, the number of birders and photographers visiting the park to see the owl grew. At times the bird had an entourage of about 20 people, many with cameras, following it around as it hunted.
While the bird may have seemed healthy, it is hard to judge a bird's health just by looking at it, said Damian Fagan, who teaches birding classes through COCC's Community Learning program. He said tests are usually needed to determine whether a bird is sick.
“You'd really have to have the bird in hand and check fat counts and blood samples to know," Fagan said.
A mystery that may now never be solved is whether the owl was planning on building a nest in or near the park and whether it had found a mate.
Ginger Sanders, a birder from Bend, said she is sure two barred owls lived at Farewell Bend Park. On Jan. 31, she said, she photographed a barred owl more than a mile northwest of the park and then drove straight to the park and five minutes later photographed another owl in the park.
After comparing photos she took on different occasions of the owl at Farewell Bend Park, and noting differences in behavior, Sanders said she thinks the two owls actually took turns being the owl at the park. She said she thinks one was a male and one a female.
Sanders, who runs a photography website called www.photographoregon.com, said she first heard about the dead owl at the park March 4 at a photo club meeting. There a pair of photographer friends told her they'd seen a dead owl in the park the day before.
Now that at least one of the owls at Farewell Bend Park is likely dead, Sanders said she isn't surprised that no barred owls have been seen there recently.
“If one loses its mate it goes to another area to look for another mate," Sanders said.