By Josette Keelor
BOYCE -- Every summer the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center rescues baby screech owls.
Part of an influx of orphaned or injured animals the center treats each year, the owlets usually need aid after falling from their nests, said Dr. Belinda Burwell, director and veterinarian at the center. The latest rescues are younger than usual.
Newly hatched when a hiker found them on May 22 at Raymond R. "Andy" Guest Jr. Shenandoah River State Park in Bentonville, the three screech owls were so young that one hadn't opened its eyes yet.
Now, huddled together in a dark, quiet cage with as little human contact as possible for the past 10 days, the owlets have been doing well under veterinarian care.
In the fall, when they're old enough to hunt, Burwell plans to return them to River State Park.
For now, once the owlets grow all their feathers, or fledge, two resident educational adult screech owls will foster the babies and teach them how to hunt -- "to behave like screech owls."
The smallest of year-round Virginia owls, screech owls are a bit of a misnomer.
"They have a trill and a whinny," Burwell said. "I don't know why they call them screech owls."
In captivity they can live 15 years but in the wild usually 10 to 12 -- "If they make it through that first year."
Like other birds of prey, owls will care for the young of their species.
"They're much more generous that way than a lot of other species," she said. "That's helpful for us because we don't want them to bond to people."
"They have a natural fear, and it comes back," she said. "We want them very afraid of people when they leave."
Staff at the center have been rehabilitating various owls, hawks and other wild birds, red and gray foxes, skunks, possums, raccoons, cottontail rabbits, squirrels, turtles and a river otter.
"We have everything," Burwell said. They even have two firsts -- a mink and a sandhill crane.
Supported entirely by donations, the center serves a 100-mile radius with the closest other wildlife centers in Waynesboro and D.C.
"If you could get decent funding, there'd be a lot more of them," Burwell said.
Blue Ridge has three paid rehabilitators, volunteers and college interns currently caring for more than 200 animals.
They don't play with the animals, but intern Sara Wilkes of Texas said, "It is fun to watch them all grow up."
Recently caring for wild baby birds on a 30-minute feeding schedule, the biology major at Denison University near Columbus, Ohio, she said she found the internship online while searching for opportunities to work with wildlife.
Said Burwell, "We couldn't do it without them."
Blue Ridge will hold its fourth annual Baby Shower at Long Branch Plantation in Millwood, from 1 to 3 p.m. June 15, accepting donations of pet food, cleaning supplies, paper products, store gift certificates and money to buy medication and formula.
"It's a very seasonal thing," she said. The winter can be very slow while animals are hibernating or have migrated away. Then in the summer, "it explodes."
"[Each year] we get about 1,000 orphans," Burwell said. "We'll probably get more this year."
To donate money or supplies, call the center at 540-837-9000 or visit www.blueridgewildlife.org.