ELIZABETHVILLE, Pa (WHTM) — On May 12, Lynn Hess’s 200-year-old bank barn burned to the ground.
“All that was left was the main beam and the frame,” Hess says. Not only did he lose the barn but a lot of equipment. “There were two tractors that the fire company pulled out that I was able to keep running, but these two tractors behind you and the corn planters and that kind of thing, those were all destroyed.”
Get daily news, weather, breaking news and alerts straight to your inbox! Sign up for the abc27 newsletters here
But there was another loss.
“Years ago,” explains Hess, “I built a barn owl nest, and every year they were successful the game commission would band the nestlings.”
The nest box is located at the top of a silo. Barn owl parents, and eventually their nestlings, could easily fly in and out through an opening. Being metal, the silo survived the fire, but some of the baby owls did not.
“There were six nestlings when the fire broke out, and they got so hot that they all jumped out of the nest,” says Hess. “Four of them survived, two of them were dead, two of them had broken legs, and all four of them were taken to the rescue unit.”
Dan Mummert, Wildlife Diversity Biologist for the Southeast Region of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, transported the birds. “I took them to Red Creek Rehab, which is a rehabber in Schuylkill County, and they’ve had these birds for the past 2 months, getting them back to health and making sure they can fly and making sure they can hunt on their own.”
Sadly, the two injured owlets did not survive. But on September 16th, the same day work crews started rebuilding the barn, Dan Mummert brought the two surviving Barn Owls back to the farm. Before being released, the birds were banded and weighed-not exactly an easy task, as the owls kept trying to bite and claw their rescuers. But returning barn owls to the wild is especially important; unlike some other raptors, they’re not holding their own in Pennsylvania.
“They’re not on the threatened or endangered species list,” explains Mummert, “But they’re quite rare and they’re declining, and we estimate we’ve lost about half of the barn owls in the state since the 1980s.”
The main reason-habitat loss. “Grassland birds”, such as the barn owl, require a specific type of habitat.
“Pasture land, hayfields, and other grasslands like that. And that’s a habitat we’re losing quickly throughout Pennsylvania,” says Mummert. “And so birds like barn owls, kestrels, harriers, these grassland birds are declining faster than other groups of birds.”
But on this day, at least, the two barn owls have a second shot at survival. When Mummert tossed them into the air, they flew off with strong and silent wingbeats. There is more good news-the barn owl parents started over after their first set of owlets went to rehab, and raised a second clutch of eggs. Lynn Hess, who has to watched multiple generations of barn owls use his nest box, is looking forward to watching them. “it was always interesting to watch them fly around, especially when it starts to get to dusk, and they fly out of the silo.”