SALINE COUNTY -- There are five more barn owls living at Sahara Woods as of Tuesday morning, in what the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is calling a success story.
Sahara Woods site manager Eric McClusky said a few years ago, two barn owl boxes were installed at the state-run wildlife area. The boxes were not immediately noticed by any barn owls in the area, he said.
"Just because barn owl boxes are installed doesn't mean they automatically will start using them, but we wanted to make them available so any owls nearby would have them as a nesting option, in an effort to increase the barn owl population," McClusky said.
McClusky and site worker Jim Burroughs very rarely had observed the odd barn owl flying through, but those sightings were rare. In 2018, though, when some area residents noticed signs that they might be in use, McClusky and Burrows took a closer look and found that a female had lain eggs in the box located near the site superintendant's office.
"Barn owls can nest at any time of the year, and unfortunately last year, the temperature appears to have warmed too quickly after the eggs were in the box. At least, that's what we think. But, it's my understanding that it is not uncommon for an entire clutch of eggs to not hatch for a variety of reasons," he said.
This spring, when evidence of use again became noticeable, Burroughs was able to discreetly install a remote camera in the box. Once again, several eggs were in the nest. This time, though, five of the six eggs hatched, and Burroughs and McClusky were able to observe both the female feeding the young and the male bringing small rodents to the nest so the hatchlings and female had an ample food supply.
Then, tragedy struck.
They noticed the female had not been seen in the nest for a significant period of time. When they investigated, they found only one wing of the female outside of the nesting box.
"We obviously don't have a way to know what happened, but it's most likely a great horned owl killed the female. Fortunately, it could not enter the box because of its design, but it left the babies stranded," McClusky said.
They contacted Beverly Shofstall of Free Again Wildlife Rehabilitation near Carterville. Shofstall has been healing injured birds and raising abandoned nestlings for many years, particularly birds of prey.
She said when she first took the young birds in, she was realistic about their odds.
"I thought the older ones might have a chance, because they were big enough that they were able to feed themselves in the nest, but the two smallest ones were in bad shape. They hadn't developed enough to be able to feed themselves," Shofstall said.
On Tuesday, though, witnessed by McClusky, Burroughs, other IDNR workers, members of the media and area bird enthusiasts, all five successfully were released back to Sahara Woods.
At two different locations, Shofstall removed the birds from large pet carriers, held them with heavy leather gloves featuring long gauntlets, and then let them go. They promptly flew into nearby stands of hardwoods as the air was filled with the sounds of camera shutters clicking.
McClusky said he was excited about the birds' release.
"This is a success story," he said. "Hopefully, these birds will remain here or nearby, but more importantly, they will increase the breeding opportunities for the barn owl population in Saline County."
"We have no way of knowing how many of these owls will be able to survive and reproduce, but if even one survives, it's an overwhelming success," she said. "It's why we do what we do."