Burrowing owl mother reunited with her babies in Marco Island

May 20, 2024

A burrowing owl and two nestling Cooper’s hawks were among the ninety-five animals admitted to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida this past week. Other admissions include a great egret, a yellow-billed cuckoo, a northern cardinal, a white-winged dove, a marsh rabbit and a gopher tortoise.

Brittany Piersma, Field Biologist for Audubon of the Western Everglades, contacted von Arx Wildlife Hospital staff regarding a debilitated burrowing owl found on the side of the road on Marco Island.

Audubon staff knew the owl needed immediate medical attention and had concerns that were discussed because the injured owl was a female with five owlets in the burrow relying on her for care. The situation was even more urgent because the Owl Watch volunteers had not seen the male owl at the burrow for over a day.


An adult burrowing owl is placed in a larger recovery enclosure at the von Arx Wildlife Hospital after spending several days on oxygen in an animal intensive care unit. The owl was hit by a vehicle on Marco Island.

Staff performed a physical exam on the owl upon admission to the wildlife hospital. The owl was dull, not vocalizing, unresponsive to visual stimulus, sitting low on her hocks and had fresh blood in her oral cavity. The suspected cause of injury was a vehicle strike.

Pain medication was administered and the owl was placed on oxygen in an animal intensive care unit to rest. Later in the day, staff adjusted the owl’s treatment plan by adding Vitamin K due to the high risk of rodenticide poisoning.

With the owl mother settled and receiving medical care, the focus switched to the owlets to ensure their survival.

Since the owlets were close to fledging, Audubon and von Arx Wildlife Hospital staff believed the owlets would be ok if Owl Watch volunteers provided food for the owls while their mother was recovering. Brittany was sure they could surreptitiously offer mice to the owlets at the burrow entrance without the owlets associating the food with people.

Five burrowing owl chicks stick close together at the entrance to their burrow. The chicks’ mother was injured by a vehicle strike.

If the plan didn’t work, hospital staff prepared to admit the owlets to the hospital for care. Fortunately, the plan worked smashingly. The owlets continued to thrive as the mother owl recovered.

Their mother showed slight improvements each day. On day three at the hospital, staff moved the owl from an animal intensive care unit to a slightly larger recovery space. Staff provided the morning medications, assist fed the owl part of a rodent diet, and returned her to the enclosure to rest. By the time of the afternoon treatment, the owl was vocalizing and eating on her own – all signs indicated the owl was on the path to a full recovery. 

After two weeks in our care, the owl was reunited with her owlets.

Mother was released back with her owlets

The successful strategy devised to assist the mother owl while allowing her owlets to thrive in the wild was a group effort and wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Owl Watch volunteers and Audubon of the Western Everglades staff. Amazingly, this week there was another example of people going above and beyond to ensure a wild animal received the care it needed – in this case, it was a nestling Coopers hawk.

Coopers Hawk Falls From Nest

The hawk had fallen from its nest and the homeowner brought it to the von Arx Wildlife Hospital for care. The nestling was dull, had bird mites and showed signs of increased respiratory effort. Staff provided pain medication, administered a natural remedy to kill the mites, and placed the hawk on oxygen in a warmed animal intensive care unit to rest. The homeowner returned later that evening with the sibling to the first hawk. The second nestling had fallen and landed on its back when it hit the ground and sustained significant trauma from the fall. Even with immediate medical care, the hawk did not survive the night.

With supportive care, the first nestling hawk admitted rebounded quickly and was cleared for renesting. Two days had passed since the nestling had been away from its parents, but that timing is still within the window for a renesting to be successful.

Hospital staff contacted the homeowner, Bethany Shepardson, to see if she was willing to allow us to renest the hawk. Bethany was incredibly helpful and very aware of the hawks in her yard, so she provided information that helped staff decide where to position the nest basket. Staff walked the property with Bethany while playing a recording of a Cooper’s hawk alarm calling hoping to draw the parents back to the yard so they could see their nestling was back in the tree. After several minutes, a cooper’s hawk flew in, but only perched in the tree for a minute before taking off. Staff was optimistic and with Bethany keeping an eye on the situation, felt confident it was worth leaving the nestling in the basket to see if a reunion would occur.

Bethany reported back multiple times. Everything seemed like it was going well. The following morning, Bethany let staff know an adult Cooper’s hawk was seen hunting in the field next to the nest. She agreed to monitor the situation to see if the adult would land at the nest basket with the baby. Staff provided Bethany with mice that she could put in the nest basket with the baby so he wouldn’t go hungry since we weren’t sure the parents had returned. Bethany willingly climbed the ladder to put mice in the basket and helped set up a motion sensor camera to get video to verify if the adult hawks were coming to the nest. 

The next day brought frustration. There was no confirmation the adult hawks resumed care for their baby, so the nestling needed to be returned to the wildlife hospital for care.

While not the outcome anyone hoped for, everything that could be done to reunite the family had occurred and that does offer some peace of mind. Bethany was so incredibly caring, helpful and is now part of our Critter Courier Volunteer program. Once the nestling is grown and able to fend for itself, the hawk will be returned to Bethany’s yard for release.

The von Arx Wildlife Hospital is very busy due to breeding season and a high number of baby animal admissions occurring each week. The Cooper’s hawk nest was twenty miles from the wildlife hospital; limited staffing makes it difficult to coordinate renestings. Without the extraordinary effort Bethany put into helping us and the hawk, it’s unlikely we could have attempted a renesting. We are grateful for everything Bethany did and to every person who takes the time to assist an animal in need. 

Please, if you find an animal in distress, take action. If you are unsure of how to help, call the von Arx Wildlife Hospital for guidance at 239-262-2273. The hospital is open seven days a week from 8am to 7pm. 

Recent Releases

A common yellowthroat, four gopher tortoises, a northern cardinal, three marsh rabbits, two osprey, five blue jays, an American redstart, a brown thrasher, three northern mockingbirds, two common grackles, three Virginia opossums, a loggerhead shrike, an eastern screech owl, four mourning doves, a Florida red-bellied turtle and two brown pelicans were released this past week.

Annual Wildlife Baby Shower

As I mentioned previously, baby season is keeping us extra busy! In the past seven weeks over four hundred seventy-five baby animals have been admitted, that number doesn’t include all the adult animals also admitted for care. 

Get involved, the von Arx Wildlife Hospital is hosting our ninth annual Wildlife Baby Shower to raise awareness and support for the hospital’s youngest, most delicate patients.

Save the DateThe Wildlife Hospital Baby Shower is Saturday, June 1. Visit the Conservancy’s website for details. If you are unable to attend the baby shower, donate gifts online through the Conservancy’s Amazon Wish List and our Chewy Wish List through the entire month of June. Visit conservancy.org/wishlist. We couldn’t do all we do for wildlife in need without the generous support of our community.

Opportunities to Help

Please visit our website to learn about opportunities to get involved. Please consider volunteering, if you are unable to give of your time as a volunteer, become a member or donate. Your support will help the Conservancy continue to protect Southwest Florida’s water, land, wildlife and future. 

Joanna Fitzgerald is the Director of the von Arx Wildlife Hospital at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, 1495 Smith Preserve Way, Naples, Florida 34102. Call 239-262-2273 or see conservancy.org.