by Michele Wellard
Imagine a large great horned owl with huge yellow eyes, perched in a tree in the moonlight. He spots his prey and takes off. The serrated edges of his wing feathers ensure that he flies silently through the night. His prey will never hear him coming.
But suddenly, instead, the owl is caught. He is tangled and ensnared, hanging in the dark, by something he never saw. He thrashes and struggles. Eventually exhaustion causes him to give up, and he hangs in his trap. The cause? A soccer net.
Owls see very well in low light. As animals who are most active in dark, this makes sense. Their tube-shaped eyeballs give them excellent binocular vision, and as ambush predators, they laser focus on their prey.
Many times, they are so focused that they don’t see hazards created by humans that are so often in the way. And for some reason, one of the most common hazards for great horned owls is the soccer net.
At Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center, we received one of these owls last week. He was completely tangled up in a soccer net in Northeast Philadelphia. The rope was wrapped around his neck, his wings and between his legs, in many layers. His breathing was constricted as the string was around his body.
Thankfully, someone cut him free, and Philadelphia Animal Control officers Michael Hill and Ken Atwood cut him down and dropped him off at our rehabilitation center, with the string still encasing his feathery body.
Although the owl had some cuts and abrasions from the ropes rubbing against him, the greatest threats to his health were dehydration and stress. When an animal is in stress, a serious health risk called “capture myopathy” is a concern. We don’t know how long the owl was entangled in the net, but based on his level of dehydration, he had been caught for a long time.
Soccer nets are an all-too-common hazard for great horned owls. We have had several owls caught in them over the last few years. A Google search for “great horned owl/soccer net” revealed dozens of articles detailing the same situation all over the country.
What can be done to protect owls from soccer net injury? (According to Deb Welter, Licensed PA Wildlife Rehabilitator at the Diamond Rock Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic in Malvern, “I have also seen many owls, groundhogs and deer caught in soccer nets.”) It’s so simple: Soccer nets should be taken down or simply rolled up and tied when not in use, but most people have no idea they are a hazard to animals.
So we hope to spread the word and encourage sports teams to think of the wild neighbors who use their fields at night. Other hazards for owls include fake spider web Halloween decorations (please use only indoors!) windows and cars, which injure the owls as they chase their prey.
Please spread the word! At Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center, we are always happy to answer calls and questions about any wildlife situation. We can be reached at 267-416-9453 or phillywildlife.org
Michele Wellard is assistant director of the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center in King of Prussia. The founder and director is Rick Schubert, of Mt. Airy, who formerly led the wildlife rehab facility at the Schuylkill Center in upper Roxborough.