DICKINSON, N.D. -- On the evening of Nov. 16, 2018, John Fielding and his wife braved a blizzard, battling the elements in a race against time. A life was on the line.
On Wednesday morning, Jan. 16, John Fielding set out on a cold and grey North Dakota morning to reunite with the life he’d saved and see it safely returned to its Dickinson-area home.
“It’s kind of gratifying,” Fielding said. “I’ve done this with other birds over the years, not ever a bird of prey however.”
The bird of prey he was referring to is a great horned owl, the second heaviest breed of owl in North America. This particular specimen was clad in wintery plumage, its enormous yellow eyes shining brightly.
It took off well during the release, confidently flapping once-injured wings and swooping into the air and away without pause. Fielding reckoned it has a family to return to.
“I do see another one in the area quite a bit; I’m pretty sure it is its mate,” he said. “They mate for life.”
Fielding works at the Dickinson Airport with the Transport Security Administration, and he encountered the great horned owl in November while driving south of the airport.
“There was a snow plow about half a mile in front of me. I was speaking with my sister on the speaker phone, and I said ‘Wait a minute, I saw something in the ditch,’ and I turned around,” Fielding recalled. “I think it had been hit by a snow plow because it hit right where the snow hits the ditch and then flopped down into the bottom of the ditch.”
He called the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Rehabilitation Center, and they ultimately advised him to bring it to the nearest rehab center within North Dakota, which was located at the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck. There was nowhere else to take it because he couldn’t cross state lines with the bird.
Fielding got a box, made the bird comfortable in it and kept it in a dark place during the day until he was finished working and could bring it to Bismarck.
“So I worked my shift, my wife brought my 4-wheel drive over because it was blizzarding and we took it over to Bismarck that night. It was a 6-hour round trip; it was pretty bad that night,” Fielding said.
They got the bird safely to Bismarck. During the next two months the experts there nursed the owl back to health.
“This bird had a broken wing,” Terry Lincoln, director of the Dakota Zoo, said in a phone interview. “Every bird we get in we do an X-ray on and that lets us know what we’re dealing with … the nice thing about it was, all we had to do was set the wing so it would heal properly. After a couple of weeks he was flying again.”
They monitored his diet and exercise, and the bird healed quickly and steadily, Lincoln said.
Eventually Fielding was notified that the rehabilitation was a success. The bird was to be released back in Dickinson, and he was invited to participate. Territorial owls have increased chances of survival if returned to their original stomping grounds.