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Papa Bird Nurtures Dozens Of Injured Owlets

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A Great Horned Owl named Papa G'Ho has been living at the Wildlife Center of Virginia for the past 12 years.
Jonathan Wilson
A Great Horned Owl named Papa G'Ho has been living at the Wildlife Center of Virginia for the past 12 years.

The Wildlife Center of Virginia has been rehabilitating injured native animals for decades, and for the past 12 years a non-releasable great horned owl has been helping out. Papa G'Ho, as he's known, has acted as a surrogate parent for more than two dozen owlets that have come through the center.

"He is a rather large Great Horned Owl with a lot of attitude," says Amanda Nicholson, the director of outreach for the Wildlife Center of Virginia. "He came in with a wing injury. 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."

That may not sound like a big deal, but it keeps Papa G'Ho from flying silently. 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.

So Nicholson and her colleagues at the Wildlife Center decided the owl would become a permanent resident, and they put him to work, as a surrogate parent.

Orphaned owls 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.

But here's the twist: for eight years, Papa G'Ho was actually known as Mama G'Ho.

"We know that in a lot of these species, the females are a bit larger, and we can make an educated guess when we get an exceptionally large bird, like him — we just kind of assumed: female," Nicholson says.

Then, in 2010, the center had the opportunity to do some DNA testing.

"We were all very surprised to find out that he was a male," she says. "Just a very, very large male. The name change was in order then" -- to Papa G'Ho.

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