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Lost from its parents, a young owl takes flight back to NC forest

Sunny Cooper, hospital manager at the Carolina Raptor Center, releases a young great horned owl near a wooded area on Hudspeth Dairy Road in Harrisburg on Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
Nick de la Canal
/
WFAE
Sunny Cooper, hospital manager at the Carolina Raptor Center, releases a young great horned owl near a wooded area on Hudspeth Dairy Road in Harrisburg on Wednesday, June 26, 2024.

Here's an update to a story WFAE's Nick de la Canal reported in April from the Carolina Raptor Center that focused on a team caring for young owls with no parents.

One of the owls under care at the Carolina Raptor Center lost its family when their tree in Matthews was cut down. It was a chattering, nervous wreck when WFAE visited the center in April.

Last Wednesday, Sunny Cooper, the center's hospital manager, boxed the owl up and placed it in the backseat of her blue sedan. Then she drove to a quiet road in Harrisburg beside a large patch of woods.

There, she took the box out of her backseat and placed it on the gravel road.

"Today, we're going to release one of our young great horned owls that came in earlier this year," she said. "He's been with us for almost 100 days, and that's a large part of his life."

She calls the owl a "he," though it might be a "she" based on its weight. It's hard to tell with great horns.

Either way, the bird is about to take its first flight into the wild after months of learning how to hunt and fly under staff supervision.

"Is this exciting for you, or are you just, like, desensitized at this point from releasing so many owls?" I asked.

"No! I like releasing birds and I really like releasing babies, because sometimes, birds that come to us as babies, they get out of the box and they just sit in one place from a really long time, because they don’t really know what to do," she said. "Or they take off and you’re like, 'Wow, you flew way farther than I ever thought that you would fly right now.'"

A young great horned owl was released into an undeveloped patch of woods in Harrisburg on Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
Nick de la Canal
/
WFAE
A young great horned owl was released into an undeveloped patch of woods in Harrisburg on Wednesday, June 26, 2024.

This spot is on the edge of a large patch of undeveloped forest in Harrisburg with a creek — helpful for a young owl that will need to start hunting right away.

The trees are drenched in late evening sun as Cooper bends down to unfasten the box.

"I'm going to turn her around real quick. You can hear her hissing," she said.

She tilts the box forward and opens the top. The bird pokes its head out, its yellow eyes adjusting, and then takes off in a powerful flap of wings.

"There she goes!" Cooper said.

The owl pushes itself into the sky, gaining height and speed, and then arcs clumsily into a tall tree, where it can survey its new landscape. Below, we watch in quiet fascination.

"Is the owl going to be OK? I'm worried about it," I asked.

"I don’t think that you need to worry about them. I’m always excited for them. I’m excited to see what they’ll do, and I think they go out there and they live their best lives," Cooper said, laughing.


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The owl perches, and it's clear the event is over. It's time for us to leave, but it feels hard to walk away.

"This must be how parents feel when they drop their kids off at college, and then they just have to go home. You spent so much time with the bird, and now it's all over," I said.

"Well it's all over for our relationship with the bird, but for the bird, it's their new beginning," Cooper said.

If the owl hadn’t been rescued, it likely wouldn’t have survived. It’s a reminder that even as Charlotte grows, we still have plenty of animal neighbors. And maybe the next owl you hear will be Cooper’s latest rescue, gliding through the woods, living its best life.

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Nick de la Canal is an on air host and reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal
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