July 19, 2013 at 3:55 PM ET
When the Carstens Fire blazed through Mariposa County, Calif., last month, firefighters clamored to contain the flames in the Sierra National Forest. As one unit had just set to work clearing away potentially vulnerable trees and brush on June 19, firemen in the group discovered an adorable surprise amid the destruction: two abandoned owlets.
Firefighter Nick Gauthier, 27, was surprised when a colleague approached him cradling a Western screech owl cradled in his hand. The little one had been found inside a tree cut down to make the firebreak, the gap in vegetation firefighters create to stop a blaze. Figuring there might be other stranded owls, Gauthier took another look inside the hole and discovered one more.
“It was exciting,” he told TODAY.com. “It’s not the same kind of thing you come across every day. It’s nice to see something like that; everyone gathered around, taking pictures.”
At first the firefighters placed both babies back inside the felled tree, assuming mom might soon return. But one of the owlets was struggling to stand on both legs, so the unit’s captain phoned the fire’s resources advisor, Francey Blaugrund, who called wildlife biologist Anae Otto to the scene.
When Otto arrived two and a half hours later, the owlet’s mom was still nowhere to be found. The biologist thought the animal's mother had probably made a hasty getaway in the face of the rapidly-spreading fire.
“We didn’t see any adults in the area and felt it was highly unlikely they would be coming back to the area,” she told TODAY.com.
Otto also noticed that the younger owlet was particularly lethargic. “At that point I was very concerned,” she said.
As they were in questionable health and left to fend for themselves with a fire blazing about 600 feet away, Otto decided to bundle up the owlets and take them back to her office in a cardboard box.
At home that night, she gave them a rehydration solution made of water, sugar and salt. By the next morning, the younger baby had gained back most of his strength: He snacked on night crawlers and began clacking his beak again (as owls are wont to do).
“It was really rewarding because so much of my work is intangible,” she said of the experience. “This time I was directly helping animals in need.”
But the task of preparing the owlets for release back into the wild would require the help of a rehabilitation expert. That’s when Terri Williams of Fresno Wildlife Rehabilitation stepped in to help.
She’s spent the last few weeks keeping the owlets well fed on a diet of mice and crickets. They were kept in a nest-sized, temperature-controlled container at first, but were transferred to an enclosed flight area at about 4 weeks old. There they’ve gained experience “flapping, flying and finding food,” which will help them when they're on their own once more.
Williams, 52, was also given the very important task of naming the owlets. She dubbed one Puff because of his habit of puffing up whenever he felt threatened, and named his sibling Stuff.
“His sibling was groggy, less healthy, and laid down a lot possibly due to smoke inhalation, falling from the tree, or simply genetics, but anyway, he didn't really have the ‘Right Stuff,’ so to speak,” Williams wrote.
The owlets, now 6 or 7 weeks old, have grown up quite a bit while in Williams’ care. Once docile, they’ve become “much more aggressive” when she cleans their enclosure. Not that the owlets don’t enjoy each other’s company when alone.
“They clack their beaks to frighten me away, and can now fly away very well,” she said. “When they don't know humans are watching they can be very goofy and interact with each other in funny ways… playing chase and hide-and-seek around their room.”
Williams will soon release the siblings in the same area they were found, since they are required by law to be let go within a 2 mile radius of their origin. Some might assume she’ll be mournful when they make their way back to the wild, but Williams “loves a good release.”
“People think we get sad, but we are just happy to see them do well and make it back to where they belong,” she said.