Maintainers that give a "hoot!"

  • Published
  • By Mr. Frank Berger
  • 576th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Squadron
The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, more commonly referred to as "The Boneyard", has a lengthy history here in Tucson, Ariz. Since 1946, the facility has performed aircraft storage, parts support and regeneration in support of the warfighter. The nearly 600 employees at AMARG do some pretty remarkable things, but one thing most people aren't aware of, is their capable skill of rescuing owls.

The great horned owl, also known as a hoot owl, cat owl, or winged tiger, has chosen to make its home in the rafters of an open-air maintenance structure at AMARG. The high roof line on what the maintainers refer to as the "shelter," is an ideal place for the owls to nest and call home. For years, since a family of noisy ravens found alternate accommodations, the owls have produced and raised families from their high vantage point above the aircraft maintenance activities.

AMARG is a popular destination for dignitaries and community leaders visiting Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and it's not uncommon for them to be offered an opportunity to walk the entire length of this 906 foot long aircraft nose dock. In addition to viewing ongoing maintenance on the A-10s, and both F-16 and C-130 aircraft regeneration activities, the owls have become an added attraction to those fortunate enough to be afforded a boots-on-the-ground tour.

In April, aircraft mechanics beginning their work day discovered a great horned owl chick timidly sitting on a maintenance stand. It was assumed that the fledgling had fallen out of its nest from the rafters above. Very alert and very aware of the developing human interest in its condition, the baby appeared to be in good health with no obvious signs of trauma. However, at roughly four weeks of age, it was defenseless and unable to return to its nest which rests high in the cross beams 60 feet overhead. With two siblings remaining in the nest, concerned parents watched helplessly.

For an entire day, the aircraft mechanics and technicians did their best not to disturb the misplaced owl. A human-free corridor was set up around the bird to keep it calm as well as shield any unsuspecting workers from a powerful and fiercely protective parent. Remarkably, the baby seemed comfortable with the solitude--making no attempt to shift position or fly. However, at 3:00 p.m., perhaps driven by hunger or the instinct to find a safer perch at dark, the little owl made a brave, but failed attempt to fly, wedging its neck in the maintenance stand's rails.

Mr. James Paul, a maintenance work leader, observing the entire attempt to launch, realized that it was now time for intervention if this baby was going to survive. He and Mr. John Harris, also known as "the bird man of AMARG," and an aircraft electrician here for the last four years, tenderly freed its head from the rails and secured it in a box. Later, Mr. Harris transported the bird to the Tucson Wildlife Center, located on Tucson's eastside. The center, a non-profit organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured wild animals throughout southern Arizona, welcomed their new charge.

After rescue center personnel finished a complete examination of the unfortunate orphan, the female owl was named "Owlietta," her talons were painted green for easy recognition, and she was placed with a surrogate owl family.

Several days later, a sibling would fall from the nest, and again, without enough flight time under its feathers to return to the nest. The scenario was all too familiar, only this time according to witnesses, there seemed to be a slight difference--this chick was a stronger flyer than the first and conducted a "more controlled crash landing onto the shelter floor." Once again, Mr. Harris placed the juvenile bird in a protective box and made the trek to the rehabilitation center. "Owlivia" would sport pink talons during her stay.

One week later, a third chick's fate was again in the hands of AMARG's tender-hearted maintainers. Unfortunately, the hard fall from the nest broke a fragile leg bone on the little male. Not knowing the extent of the third bird's injuries, Mr. Harris was soon on his way to the Wildlife Center for treatment and very concerned about this fledgling's future.

Something was definitely amiss and AMARG's mechanics, known for stepping up to take corrective action, fervently went to work to find and fix why the babies were prematurely jettisoning themselves from their nest. A visual inspection of the nest shockingly revealed it was simply too small, full of foreign objects, and the sticks used to weave and build the cradle were in shambles.

Mr. Harris, together with the Wildlife Center's owl caregivers and experts, developed a plan. They would design, assemble, and install a more suitable habitat for AMARG's family of owls. The old nest would have to be removed.

Wood craftsmen from AMARG's woodmill volunteered time to fabricate a new, more modernized home to include a nesting basket with nursery walls, plus a respite perch for the parents.

With the demolition of the old dilapidated nest, which had served both raven and great horned owl families well through the years, the maintainers safely secured the new box to the rafters. The box, custom made by some of the most talented wood workers in Tucson, is sure to last well into the future and serve these feathered friends well.

Owlietta recuperated two weeks at the rescue center before Mr. Harris returned to work with her on May 14. With the help of a man lift and fellow operator, Harris gingerly placed the owlet in her new loft. Owlivia rejoined her Boneyard family at month's end, but unfortunately, due to the severity of the male's injuries, "Owliver" would not return.

The great horned owl parents, having accepted their returning offspring, may be seen daily performing touch and go flight exercises together from the wings of a C-130.

This compassionate collaboration between Tucson's resident owl experts at the Tucson Wildlife Center, AMARG's leadership, aircraft maintenance and Woodmill employees was the result of their desire to build a bridge across urban boundaries and do the right thing to save three young owls.

The family loves their new home.