The three great horned owls that were removed from their nest in Mountain Shadows in May were released back into the wild Sunday, after spending two months in the care of the Ellicott Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
The birds were still considered young owlets when Colorado Parks & Wildlife stepped in May 7. Large crowds had been gathering for several days to catch a glimpse of them at the busy intersection of Centennial Boulevard and Vindicator Drive. The adult owls had built their nest in a tree at a Walgreens, and Colorado Springs police had to resort to issuing citations to people for standing on the road and blocking traffic.
A small crowd of wildlife enthusiasts gathered at the Santa Fe Trail on Woodmen Valley Park on Sunday evening to celebrate as the owls, now considered young adults, were ready to spread their wings.
Three months older and wiser, the owls have learned how to fly and hunt by themselves, essential skills necessary to survive in the wild.
"At the Ellicott rehab center, the owls were housed with nine other owlets and a foster owl named Hootie. Once they were physically healthy and strong, the owls were moved to a large flight cage where they prepared for release by socializing with other owls, gained strength, and practiced flying and landing," said Donna Ralph, director of the wildlife rehabilitation center. "The owls were provided a complete diet and learned to catch and kill their own rodent food."
The owls were released at about 8 p.m. in the Rockrimmon area, roughly 5 miles from where they were hatched and nested, by Ellicott volunteers, using the birds' nocturnal tendencies in their favor as they got their first taste of freedom.
The location of the release, Ralph said, had been agreed upon with parks and wildlife officials, who advised the owls should remain within a certain distance of where theywere born.
Michael Seraphin, parks and wildlife spokesman, said back in May that wildlife officials were concerned the owls were approaching the age where they would jump out of the nest as they were attempting to learn how to fly.
In the wild, young owls often spend time on the ground during their flight training and wildlife officers were concerned for their safety because of their proximity to traffic. Seraphin said the birds were thought to be between 3 and 5 weeks old when they were taken in by the wildlife rehabilitation center.
Days before the owlets' removal, people got too close to them, even trying to climb the tree to get a better look and putting stress on the birds. Police eventually set up barricades surrounding the owls' area to keep the public away.
Release of wild birds by the rehabilitation center has been ongoing this summer with 13 great horned owls to be released in the next two weeks as well as three hawks, kestrels and numerous songbirds. The center cares for more than 800 birds and mammals every year with the goal of rehabilitation and release.
"Thanks to generous donations and hardworking interns and volunteers, we've watched baby birds grow up, learn how to survive in the wild, and go on to successful releases," Ralph said.