By Karen Zautyk
See that big, beautiful brown and white owl? That’s my new friend Squam. “
Squam. I met him last week at the Meadowlands Environment Center. “Who?” Squam! His name is a Native American word for “owl.”
Never mind. Go talk to a gecko, and I’ll tell everyone else the story.
Squam, a Barred Owl–so named for the stripes on his chest–was one of four owls brought to the N.J. Meadowlands Commission on Nov. 17 for an entertaining educational program.
They traveled (by SUV, not wing) all the way from Medford, N.J., where they reside at the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge. The Burlington County center rescues and cares for some 4,000 animals and birds — injured, orphaned, displaced — every year.
Those than can be rehabilitated for life in the wild are eventually released back into nature. Those that have been too badly hurt, or for some other reason would not be able to survive on their own, take up residence at Cedar Run.
Along with Squam, making guest appearances at the MEC were two Eastern Screech Owls, Gemma and Otus (who gets his moniker from the Latin word for the owl genus), and a Great- Horned Owl, Hoo-dini, an “escape artist” with the uncanny ability to free himself from his jesses (thin leather tethers).
Hoo-dini and Gemma each has a permanent broken wing, and Otus has only one wing. All of them had been rescued after being hit by cars or tractors.
Though given expert medical care at Cedar Run’s hospital, they remain unable to fly. Which is why their only hope for survival now is to live at the refuge, not in the forests.
“If they can’t fly, they can’t hunt. And if they can’t hunt, they can’t eat,” explained Becca Friedman, who along with Lee Yeash, presented the program to a rapt audience of children and adults. Friedman and Yeash are both naturalists at Cedar Run.
Among the owl visitors, our favorite was Squam. Poor thing, he was also run down by some vehicle, leaving him with brain damage and blindness in one eye. Now he is afflicted with cataracts in the other. He can barely see at all. But he remains both constantly alert — rotating his large head the 270 (not 360) degrees of which owls are capable — and yet completely calm, even as he is carried up and down the aisles to meet and greet the humans.
But then, Squam is a veteran “performer,” having participated in Cedar Run programs since 2002.
Because his eyesight is virtually nil, the Cedar Run folk who serve up his standard diet of (dead) mice place the black mice on white plates and the white mice on black plates so he can more easily see them.
Unprompted (I don’t think you could prompt an owl in any case), Squam was kind enough to treat his fans to his distinct Barred Owl call.
To get some sense of what it sounds like, purse your lips and in a high, hooting voice say, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you . . . all?”
The call of the Barred Owl is not to be confused with that of the Barn Owl, which sounds like someone screaming. Someone screaming while they are being torn apart by crocodiles. It is very scary.
(If you’d like to actually hear a Barred Owl, a Barn Owl and a wide variety of owl calls, there’s an app for that. Really.)
At the MEC, we learned many things about owls and their habits and their habitats and their physical attributes, including the fact that they are known for their silent flight– the better to sneak up on prey.
They also can clearly see two separate things at the same time, which is how the head rotation helps.
They can blink with just one eye. Their large eyes let in a lot of light, which helps them hunt at night. And the tufts on the ears of some species are purely decorative, serving no purpose at all. (You will note that Squam has no tufts. His species is too dignified for superfluous tufts.)
If you would like to know more about the Woodford Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge, visit cedarrun.org, which contains a wealth of information about the work it does and the creatures it helps.
The website also offers expert advice on what to do (and what not to do) if you yourself find an injured or orphaned animal.
Along with the thousands treated, rehabbed and released annually, there are 64 resident animals and birds at Cedar Run, which is 100% nonprofit. It receives no federal or state funding.
Its monies come from donations, memberships and adoptions. The adoptions, please note, are symbolic; you cannot take an owl or a turtle or a groundhog home with you. You can, however, provide the funding for its care and feeding. Annual adoptions cover a wide range, from $25 to $150. Full info on this and other programs is on the website.
(Note: Guess whoo has adopted Squam? But the adoptions are not exclusive, so you can adopt him, too.)
If you’d like to visit, Cedar Run is open 365 days a year: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children. For children age 3 and under and for Cedar Run members, admission is free.