Written by Jenni Davies
Photographs supplied by The Owl Orphanage
Owls are among the biggest stars of the internet, with their huge, hypnotic eyes, fierce expressions, and majestic flight. Sadly, their celebrity has not translated into their safety. These magnificent creatures are under increasing threat, as are all birds of prey and other wildlife. That’s where The Owl Orphanage in Velddrif – the only fully permitted rehabilitation centre on the West Coast for birds of prey and now the only blue crane rehabilitation centre in the Western Cape province – is coming to the rescue.
In 2018, founder Jacques Nel, who’s been involved with issues surrounding nature and wildlife throughout his life, rescued their very first owl patient. Little did he know that this would be the start of a life-saving rehabilitation centre for injured, poisoned and orphaned birds.
Birds under threat
South Africa’s wonderful wildlife, including birds of prey and SA’s national bird, the blue crane, is increasingly in peril for several reasons, including human population increase and its associated construction, wire fencing, electrical overhead cables, indiscriminate use of poison, increased traffic, destruction of natural habitat, growing numbers of domestic dogs and cats, as well as misunderstanding and superstition, and the illegal wildlife trade.
Rescuing injured, sick and poisoned birds of prey is a highly specialised field. They need careful care from expert rehabilitators to ensure full recovery without becoming used to human contact so that they can safely be released back into the wild, where they belong. This specialised care is in very short supply (and costs a fortune). Jacques saw a dire need for this care on the West Coast, where farmland, open bush, and vast tracts of land make it the ideal place for these birds.
But the need goes further than rescue and rehabilitation. Creating awareness and education, and establishing places of refuge for our indigenous birds and wildlife are also critical.
Birds of prey like owls are actually an important part of the ecosystem and they can help us by keeping pests under control, without the need of poison. It’s important that people learn these facts.
We’re for owls (and more)
At first, the aim was to build a rehab for owls only. From their first patient, the need for such a centre grew rapidly, with a whopping increase of over 60% annually, including the need for other species.
They found themselves the caretakers of a beautiful property in St Helena Bay on the West Coast, which was donated for this cause. This was followed by a move to a farm just outside the small town of Velddrif, where they have been for the past two years. Here, they could create a larger safe haven for wildlife and would be able to build more aviaries, day camps, and bigger enclosures for the many feathered (and a few furry ones too) animals needing their help.
Jacques explains that, “The centre has a medical room and an additional quarantine ICU away from the other birds. Currently we’re expanding even more to be able to handle a larger influx. This is because we’re now also an accredited member of NSPCA and SPCA. We get in wildlife from all our local and further afield SPCAs. We’ll also now start getting more blue crane* rescues in from further afield [due to their accreditation].”
In order to keep the birds as wild as possible, human interaction is kept to a bare minimum, and casual visitors are not permitted. These aren’t pets or zoo animals – they’re wild animals trying to get back to where they belong. Once successfully rehabilitated, they’re released on farms where the farmers have wisely decided not to use rat poison.
Although, as Jacques says, the centre has all necessary facilities to be able to care for these many beautiful animals, more is needed, “Unfortunately, due to the ever-increasing need to help injured, poisoned and orphaned birds, we need to keep up development at our centre to have enough facilities available for any intakes going forward. We’re currently building additional enclosures for various additional species to our permit list that increases every year.”
You can help The Owl Orphanage!
The number one thing you can do to help is by donating funds, as The Owl Orphanage receives no government support whatsoever. You can also help by spreading awareness of the organisation and the need to help wild animals in general by joining their Facebook page, liking, commenting and sharing their posts. The Owl Orphanage is a registered Public Benefit Organisation (PBO number 930072975) and, as such, can provide tax exemption certificates.
Donations can be made to:
Coast Environmental Project Fund T/A Owl Orphanage
Bank: ABSA Bank
Account type: Cheque Account
Account number: 4098603515
Branch Code: 632005
SWIFT Code: ABSAZAJJ
Reference: [Project name]
For more information, phone or WhatsApp +27 72 0405 465, email email@example.com, visit the website at www.theowlorphanage.co.za and follow on Facebook @The Owl Orphanage. Velddrif. https://www.facebook.com/owlorphanage
Note that, in order to best help the animals in their care, visitors and casual volunteers aren’t permitted to visit The Owl Orphanage. You can keep up to date and see pictures of their rescues by reading the quarterly newsletter and following their Facebook page.
Tips for helping owls and other birds of prey
No more poison
Not only is poison cruel to the rodents which eat them, they also end up being responsible for secondary poisoning in wildlife (and even pets like cats and dogs). Instead, discourage these animals by clearing rubble, removing sources of food, and sealing gaps in your home where they can get in. If you already have rodents and need to get rid of them, opt for physical traps (not glue traps, as these can also maim and kill birds and even pets), which are available in hardware stores; humane traps which don’t kill the animal are also widely available. Encourage your neighbours to do the same, and lobby your local shopping malls, farms, schools, municipalities and other places which use poisons to stop doing so.
Encourage owls to move in
Owl boxes/houses are a great way to encourage these helpful birds into your neighbourhood or onto your farm or smallholding. These birds don’t build their own nests, preferring to use existing structures, be it trees or a peaceful barn. Because these sites are increasingly developed and lost, providing well-placed owl boxes makes it possible for them to breed.
Be road aware
Owls often sit on the road at night, whether because they’re hunting or because they’re fledglings learning to fly and explore. Sadly, many are hit by cars as a result. Take care when driving after dark, particularly in areas in which owls are known to live, and remind others to do the same.
If you need to do roof renovations, be it on your home, church, school, barn, etcetera, always check the ceilings and roof first for signs of owls. Avoid doing work while owls are nesting or rearing owlets until they’ve flown the nest. Close your chimney tops with wire so birds cannot fall through.
Help birds in trouble
If you see birds needing help, it’s crucial to take the right steps. Firstly, make sure it actually needs your help! Young birds learning to fly often take a break on the ground while the parents are nearby keeping an eye, and many birds are ground dwelling or hunt on the ground. Sometimes a bird is just stunned after flying into a window and needs a few moments to recover. If this is the case, put your pets away and leave the bird be while keeping an eye on it from a safe distance. If it does indeed need help, it’s best to call an experienced wildlife rehabilitator to check what to do next. Be aware that they’re generally overworked and may not be able to come and fetch the bird from you, so you may need to take it to them.
Only if absolutely necessary should you consider attempting to catch and move it (for example, if it’s in the road). Never chase wild animals as this causes stress, which can kill. Instead, use a towel or cloth to carefully place over the bird, which will help to keep it calm and reduce the chances of it hurting itself further. With great care and keeping well clear of beak and claws, gently place it in an aerated box in a quiet, darkened area while you call for help from a wildlife rehabilitator or exotics vet. Don’t try to feed it, give it water, or interact in any way, and don’t try to treat the animal yourself or attempt to turn it into a pet – these are wild animals with very specific needs and keeping them is extremely cruel. Time is of the essence – if you truly love these animals, you’ll get the right help immediately.
*The graceful Blue Crane is South Africa’s national bird and is classed a “vulnerable species”, with only around 25,000 left in the world. It’s illegal to remove them from the wild, and special accreditation is needed to rehabilitate them.