Papa Bird Nurtures Dozens Of Injured Owlets (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Papa Bird Nurtures Dozens Of Injured Owlets

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Our next story on today's Fatherhood show takes us to Virginia, home of a father who was thrust into the role of caring for offspring that weren't his own. His name is Papa G'Ho, but he's kind of different from the other dads we've met today because he's a bird. Environment reporter Jonathan Wilson brings us his story.

MR. JONATHAN WILSON

00:00:22
Papa G'Ho is a Great Horned owl, that's how he got his name. In fact, G'Ho is G-H-O for Great Horned owl.

MS. AMANDA NICHOLSON

00:00:29
He is a rather large Great Horned owl with a lot of attitude.

WILSON

00:00:33
That's Amanda Nicholson, the director of outreach for the Wildlife Center of Virginia, where Papa G'Ho now lives. It's a non-profit animal hospital for wild native species. The center has been doing its work in the forested hills of Waynesboro, Va., about 25 miles west of Charlottesville, for more than 30 years.

NICHOLSON

00:00:53
We get about 2500 patients each year, so all sorts of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians. And our goal is to rehabilitate them and hopefully release them again.

WILSON

00:01:06
But every once in a while an animal becomes too attached to humans or is simply too injured to survive in the wild. Papa G'Ho falls into the latter category.

NICHOLSON

00:01:15
He came in with a wing injury. So we worked with him for a bit, hoping that he would be releasable, but unfortunately, the very tip of his wing was injured and he's missing, essentially, the equivalent of his thumb bone.

WILSON

00:01:30
That may not sound like a big deal, and to the untrained eye, Papa G'Ho is everything you'd expect, piercing yellow eyes, powerful talons. He even clacks his beak in warning if you get too close.

WILSON

00:01:45
And he can fly, even with that missing bone, but, well, listen.

WILSON

00:01:52
You hear that? Here it is again.

WILSON

00:01:57
It's not loud, but that's the sound of Papa G'Ho flying. The problem is we shouldn't be able to hear him at all. Owls are nocturnal predators, and silent flight helps them swoop in on unsuspecting rodents or other prey. In the wild, Papa G'Ho's potential dinner would hear him coming, seriously impairing his ability to hunt.

NICHOLSON

00:02:18
He is a flappy, somewhat of a noisy flier. So unfortunately he can't be released.

WILSON

00:02:22
And so Nicholson and he colleagues at The Wildlife Center decided the owl would become a permanent resident. And they put him to work as a surrogate parent.

NICHOLSON

00:02:31
We typically get a couple of Great Horned owls each year that are caught in barbed-wire fences for some reason. And then we also typically get a couple of young orphaned owls each year, too.

WILSON

00:02:44
Those orphans need a parent to model proper owl behavior for them, and that's where Papa G'Ho comes in. The orphans can watch him fly, hunt live prey, and even learn that they should be cautious around humans, you know, father knows best. But here's the twist, for a long time, Papa G'Ho was actually known as Mama G'Ho. No, we're not talking about a sex change. It's just that with owls, there's no quick way to tell between guys and gals.

NICHOLSON

00:03:13
We know that in a lot of these species, the females are a bit larger, so we can make a good educated guess when we have an exceptionally large bird, like him. We just kind of assumed, female.

WILSON

00:03:24
And so the assumption persisted for eight years. With this owl acting as a surrogate for orphaned owlets and animal rehabbers at the center grateful for what they thought were maternal instincts. Then, in 2010, the center had the opportunity to do some DNA testing.

NICHOLSON

00:03:43
We were all very surprised to find out that he is actually a male. Just a very, very large male, but the name change was in order then.

WILSON

00:03:52
So for eight long years, Papa G'Ho was playing Mr. Mom, doing everything mama would have done and not getting any extra credit. Well, maybe he wasn't doing everything mama would have done.

NICHOLSON

00:04:03
It's actually really interesting. Once we learned that he was a male and once we started our critter cam network in 2011, a lot of the puzzle pieces came together. We used to have an old surrogate owl way back when who was a female. And when we gave her young owls she would feed them for us. So it was very easy. We threw the babies in with her, we threw her some food and she would pick up the food and feed them, which is the mother's role.

WILSON

00:04:31
But once Nicholson and her colleagues started observing Papa G'Ho's behavior on camera, they realized he was catching the food and bringing it to the owlets, but feeding them, putting food directly in their mouths, that he simply would not do. It means biologists have to feed the youngest owlets by hand to make sure they get their meals.

NICHOLSON

00:04:51
A little bit of extra work, but that's okay. Really, Papa's job is to be a role model and just really be something at which the babies can look and understand, hey, I'm a Great Horned owl and that's what I should look like and what I should sound like and how I should act when people come around.

WILSON

00:05:07
And so 12 years after his arrival, Papa G'Ho continues his work as a full-time foster parent. He's now played surrogate dad to more than two dozen owlets. Who knows, maybe someday fate will bring them together with one of his grandchildren and he can tell them about the time these silly humans thought he was a girl. I’m Jonathan Wilson.
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