hcfowler@charlotteobserver.com
hcfowler@charlotteobserver.com

Local

Ned and Nellie: A magical tale of love and loss between two barred owls

By Hayley Fowler

hcfowler@charlotteobserver.com

July 18, 2015 7:00 AM

Once upon a time there lived two lovebirds – literally. His name was Ned and hers Nellie, and they nestled together in the 100-year-old willow oaks of Myers Park.

Every spring their young would clamber into the world. Ned and Nellie watched them hop-fly between low branches until the summer heat turned to fall leaves. Then the babies flew out on their own.

Ned and Nellie never left. Edgehill Park off Queens Road had been their home since 2009.

But one day, Ned disappeared.

He wasn’t the perfect husband. Sometimes he was lazy. And she was a nervous Nellie. But Ned always came home, because owls mate for life.

He’s a perch potato.

Carly Smith, Carolina Raptor Center rehabilitation coordinator

Female owls don’t stay single for much longer than a few weeks – new males move in. But it wasn’t mating season. And lucky for Ned, Nellie was a bit undesirable as a single mother with two young babies to raise.

On the streets of Myers Park, 100 feet below, their human guardian had no idea about trouble afoot.

Marsha Gaspari, 61, a certified naturalist, was used to hearing owls hooting back and forth. She felt especially close to Ned and Nellie. She was introduced six years ago by Rob Bierregaard, then an ornithologist at UNC Charlotte. In 2011, he captured Ned and banded him on Gaspari’s kitchen counter with an identifying number on his left leg. He helped Gaspari set up an owl box in a large oak in her front yard, equipped with a motion-activated camera. It took Nellie two years to decide to nest there, and Ned approved.

Gaspari was finally able to view them up close. She realized the owls had personalities.

Ned and Nellie were like any married couple.

Once Ned didn’t come back with dinner while Nellie was stuck in the box watching the eggs. She eventually abandoned the eggs to get food. When Ned returned with a crayfish, she gobbled it up and threw him out.

The pair eventually moved on, changing nesting locations often, but they always stayed in Myers Park.

Soon, other neighbors began sharing Gaspari’s fascination with the owls. They listened with her for the distinctive “who-cooks-for-you” in the evenings.

Gaspari created a neighborhood “Hooter List” – an email listserv that now updates 200 people on “The Owl Adventures of Ned and Nellie.”

So when an injured owl turned up in a neighbor’s backyard in mid-May, Gaspari was the first person called.

A rush to the hospital

She found an owl cowering against a brick wall, flies swarming. On his left leg was a small silver band.

Gaspari pulled on a pair of gloves and cautiously crept up. Moving quickly, she covered him in a towel and laid him in a box. Birds feel safe and warm when they’re gently wrapped. It keeps them still.

Then Gaspari texted Bierregaard the number on the leg band and got confirmation: The injured owl in her passenger seat was Ned.

She drove to the Carolina Raptor Center at Latta Plantation. There, Dr. Dave Scott, staff veterinarian, gave Ned pain medication and booked him for surgery to mend a broken right humerus.

Ned’s steel implants weren’t able to be taken out until 63 days after his surgery.

Gaspari thinks Ned was hit by a car – the barred owl’s only predator in Myers Park. Or perhaps the neighbor’s dog chased him into the brick wall.

Barred owls typically heal fast. Not Ned.

Scott said the steel implants used to realign breaks are usually taken out within 40 days. But after 50 days, Ned still hadn’t healed.

His caretakers worried that if his quality of life didn’t improve, they might have to put him to sleep.

But a radiograph June 24 gave everyone hope – Ned was on the mend. This past Tuesday, 63 days after his first surgery, the implants were finally removed.

On the mend

$2,279 the cost of Ned’s rehabilitation after surgery Tuesday.

Ned is living in the “Barred Owl Orphanage.”

He has become a foster father to rescued baby owls who like to curl up by his side.

Carly Smith, the center’s rehabilitation coordinator, said Ned gives the babies behavioral cues, such as clacking when humans come near, warning them to be wary.

“He’s a perch potato,” she said, echoing Gaspari’s sentiments about Ned being lazy.

Ned is on “cage rest” while they wait for him to use his wing again and try to fly.

The cost of his rehabilitation goes up every day he stays. It hit $2,779 after surgery Tuesday.

But several donors have offered support, with more than $2,200 given.

‘Owl always love you’

Back in Myers Park, Nellie and her babies are surviving on their own near the tennis courts on Edgehill Road.

The young ones are so grown-up, it’s hard to tell them apart from Nellie high up in the branches.

Gaspari thinks they’ll leave soon. Then it will just be Nellie.

It’s a wonder she hasn’t re-mated. Perhaps she is waiting for Ned to come back home.

Fowler: 704-358-5294

Who gives a hoot?

If you’d like to donate to Ned’s treatment or follow his progress at the Carolina Raptor Center, go to http://raptormed.carolinaraptorcenter.org/, click to view records for current patients and search for patient ID number 18749.

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