Spike, the Great Horned Owl
Late Winter 1981 - December 24, 2008

Our resident Great Horned Owl at Lakeside Nature Center for the past 27 years died on December 24.  He was first brought to Lakeside Nature Center early in the summer of 1981, as a young “brancher”.  He was a young owl, being cared for by parent owls and just about ready to learn to fly.  He was out of the nest, stretching wings, hopping around on his own, but still dependent upon his parent owls for food and for defense.  It was then that his life in the wild was interrupted by people.  He suffered a fractured wing, thought to be the result of a gunshot wound.

As I have shared the story of this Great Horned Owl with many over the years, I remind them that a person caused Spike’s injury, but also many people helped him to survive.  A Conservation agent brought him to Lakeside Nature Center in 1981.  Naturalists at Lakeside (one of them being a woman I would later meet and work with when I arrived in August 1982), helped treat the injury and transported the owl to our veterinarian at the time.  Surgery was performed on the injured wing and Spike’s life was saved—he didn’t bleed to death and he didn’t die of infection.  But the injury and the resulting surgery left the owl with a permanently damaged wing and thus he would never be able to fly.

Being young, he was a candidate for permanent residency at Lakeside.  He could learn to tolerate being handled by people in a way that an older, independent owl would never be able to do.  And so he became the Education Great Horned Owl at Lakeside Nature Center.

Spike the Owl would test every single handler that worked with him.  He did that with me as well.  When I came to Kansas City, I had worked as a Naturalist in several states at different facilities.  I had most often taught outdoors on trails.  I had worked some with birds of prey at a Hawk and Owl Clinic, but had not handled them for education purposes.  In other words, I was green and Spike knew it!  So there was many a presentation I did handling him, when Spike the Owl, secure on my leather glove with me holding his leather jesses, would jump off my hand, be upside down and flap his wings so that he was rotating himself dangling from my gloved hand all the while squealing his baby owl cry.  It was very unnerving to say nothing about being embarrassing.  I would have to use my ungloved hand to gently lift him from the back (where talons couldn’t reach me) and get him balanced on my leather gloved hand again.  Over and over again he tested me until one day he didn’t do that anymore…maybe I had gained enough confidence by then.

Spike and I gained a rhythm in presentation.  I took clues from his behavior as to when enough was enough.  I never “touched” him—he hated human fingers on him.  I guarded his “space” between me and other people.  As I would share his story with groups, he became familiar with my movements and my voice to the point that he would “hoot” in response to my voice.

This Great Horned Owl was quite a “ham”.  He would hoot to audiences, conversing in his own way.  He would focus on movements or sounds out the windows and I would realize my audience was looking where he was looking.  He charmed tiny children and elders alike.  Those were my favorite groups with which to share him and his story.

A couple of years ago Spike “hammed” it up during a very tense situation, bringing me back to my comfort range and reality.  He and one of our turkey vultures and education snakes accompanied me on a journey to teach children and their families at an Earth Day event in a core city neighborhood.  On the way, I inadvertently drove into the middle of an armed assault situation.  While the van was being sideswiped by another vehicle on my left side and getting windows broken out by a baseball bat just above the traveling box holding Spike on the other side, I did my best to keep my cool and blend into the background.  So did Spike.  I realized later as I was talking with police officers, paramedics, EMTs, and firefighters when Spike began to “hoot” in response from his box, that we had both known when to keep our silence.  By then, though, emergency personnel were enthralled by hearing an owl’s voice in the van and I was pulled back to my work of sharing the stories of the Great Horned Owl, the Turkey Vulture and the snake I carried with me that day.  We never made it to the event for which we were scheduled to present, but we shared wildlife stories with the emergency workers instead.

Another part of Spike’s legacy is the young Great Horned Owls that he “fostered” many a summer.  We would place young owls with him in a secluded pen, so that they didn’t see people faces or hear people voices.  Daily, plenty of food would be left by Naturalists for Spike and the young owls.  The young ones would see an owl face and hear an owl voice and Naturalists did quietly witness Spike picking up mice and offering them to the owlets.

Spike the Great Horned Owl lived a long, long life.  He amazed people of all ages and all walks of life.  He sparked curiosity about the lives of owls all around us.  He helped Naturalists share the story of the need to conserve owl habitat.  He also directly helped prepare young owls for their future survival in the wild.  We’ll miss you Spike!  For an owl who never flew, you were able to fly into many hearts and spark interest in many minds.

These are a few things Spike the Great Horned Owl helped me learn over the last 26+ years:  It’s important to pay attention to the young ones, whether humans or owls….Respect others’ (or owls’) boundaries…It’s always good to greet the ones you know…and also those you don’t recognize!....Everyone has a story to tell….No matter how badly the events of your day go, there’s always someone that’s glad to see you…It’s good to “be there” for each other in the hard times…There are times when it is best to be and to move (or fly) in silence…Keep alert, you never know what or who might show up…The details are important….So is the big picture…and oh, yes…Simply by moving ones’ head to get a different viewpoint, one is open to a  whole new perspective.

More pictures in his photo gallery.

(Story by Susan Macdonald Bray, LNC Naturalist)