It was a hunting expedition gone wrong.
The great horned owl, hatched in March and still sporting downy baby feathers on his head, swooped low across a Weston backyard — straight into a woven soccer net.
There he dangled as the sun came up and the temperature crept into the 90s. By the time the cavalry showed up — in the form of Tom French, assistant director in charge of natural heritage and endangered species for the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife — the juvenile was dehydrated and, as indisposed owls often are, ornery.
Owl talons are nothing to mess with. “He did get me once,” said French. “I was bleeding down my wrist while trying not to hurt him.”
The owl was weak, with a badly bruised wing that left him unable to fly on his own.
But on Aug. 22, after a monthlong stay at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic in Grafton, the owl went soaring across a pond encircled by trees on conservation land in Westborough, wing healed, again in search of dinner.
“It was a beautiful release,” said Karen Donahue, the wildlife-certified veterinary technician who sent the owl back into the wild. “He really, truly had recovered.”
The clinic, part of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, usually treats between 1,600 and 1,800 sick or injured animals a year. The low-slung yellow building sits at the center of a 594-acre campus of rolling fields dotted by bird houses along Route 30 in north Grafton.
In addition to the clinic’s three permanent residents — Percy the screech owl, Big Esss the bull python, and Sir Ian the box turtle — the owl joined nearly 50 wildly diverse patients: a toad with broken toes, a coyote pup with mange, an emaciated bald eagle, a grey fox with head trauma, two baby squirrels, six cottontail rabbits.
About 10 percent of the clinic’s patients are raptors, including falcons, red-tailed hawks, the occasional bald eagle, and, of course, owls.
The state’s population of birds of prey, according to French, has more than doubled since 1972, when the federal government added an amendment protecting raptors to the migratory bird treaty between the United States and Mexico, and the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of the pesticide DDT.
During the same time, said French, there has been a shift in how humans think of, and treat, birds of prey.
“We’ve had this complete reversal of public attitude — instead of ‘mean,’ ‘deceitful,’ ‘devious,’ ‘bloodthirsty’ terminology, now it’s ‘majestic,’ ‘proud’ — hell, they’re cool,” he said.
Still, humans remain the biggest threat to raptors. “Nearly everything that we see — whether it’s a bird that has been shot, or run into a car, or run into a house, these are all consequences of interaction with humans,” said Tom Keppeler, a spokesman for the Tufts clinic. “It is part and parcel of our mission to return them to the wild, and give them as best a chance as we can to remain contributors to the ecosystem that surrounds us.”
The most common cause of injury for the birds is being hit by cars, especially in the winter, when snow makes hunting in the woods difficult and they move to roadsides. Intent on hunting, they often fail to notice the approaching vehicle until it’s too late. They hit windows in homes, fooled by the reflection of trees. They eat mice that humans have poisoned, and bleed internally. Some arrive at the clinic with gunshot wounds.
Being trapped by a soccer net is rare, French said; he has seen maybe one or two similar injuries in 25 years.
Tufts treats the toughest cases, animals that a lone rehabber or a suburban veterinarian can’t handle. About 60 to 70 percent of the animals brought through its doors die, either from their injuries or disease, or because the clinic must euthanize them, according to Robin Shearer, wildlife program assistant at the clinic.
Last year, the clinic saw more than 2,000 patients, a record attributed to wild weather and an ailing economy. Tough financial times have forced independent wildlife specialists to cut back and send more animals to Tufts for treatment.
Of the 23 great horned owls that the Tufts clinic treated last year, eight were released back into the wild, four were transferred to rehabbers for long-term private care, four died, and seven were euthanized.
The Weston owl, dubbed “Soccer Bird” on his medical chart, was the eighth great horned owl this year.
On the day of his release, he ricocheted around a sun-bleached flight cage on the Tufts property, agitated by spectators, captivity and daylight.
The great horned is the largest type of owl in the state. There is no official population count kept, French said, but he estimates that it is in the tens of thousands, and, while it has declined over the years due to habitat loss, is generally healthy. Named for the horn-like tufts of feathers that rise above their gigantic yellow eyes, great horned owls are fierce hunters that feed on rodents, rabbits, birds, and less savory fare.
“They frequently come in smelling very skunky, because they recently snacked on a skunk,” said Maureen Murray, the staff veterinarian who worked on Soccer Bird.
When the owl was brought in on July 25, he had a healthy layer of fat that suggested he was eating well. The clinic gave him fluids and a pain medication similar to ibuprofen. One of his elbows — yes, owls have elbows — was badly swollen, but he had no broken bones.
The clinic emphasizes the importance of keeping wild creatures wild, and the owl was handled as little as possible. Veterinarians took X-rays, and set him up in a small cage so he wouldn’t try to use his wing too much. As the owl healed, they moved him to larger cages to make sure his flight was strong.
While some birds of prey, like hawks, don’t mind an audience at their release, owls spook easily, so Soccer Bird’s final flight was done privately at dusk.
The owl, said Murray, is about halfway through the most dangerous stage in his development, when he must learn to hunt and survive on his own.
“The first year of life for a bird of prey is really challenging,” she said. “The majority don’t make it through.”
Now, he faces the winter.
His stay at the clinic probably won’t hurt his chances of survival, said Murray. For the owl, Tufts is likely to be a distant memory already.
“For the most part, I think they get out there and shake their feathers and sort themselves out,” said Murray. “I think they just go back to business.”