What killed owl at Forest Lawn? Maybe not what you think. - The Buffalo News

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What killed owl at Forest Lawn? Maybe not what you think.

It wasn't the attention that killed the owl.

Nor a predator.

Nor toxins near Scajaquada Creek.

Most likely, it was rat poison.

The 2-year-old female Great Horned Owl found dead last month under its perch at Forest Lawn appears to have been poisoned by its prey.

Preliminary results from wildlife pathologists determined the owl's likely cause of death was from ingesting a rodenticide, possibly from prey that the animal consumed, according to biologists from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Are birdwatchers to blame for owl's death at Forest Lawn?

"Further analyses to confirm these results are underway," the DEC said.

The agency said those results aren't expected for several more weeks.

The owl's body was found Feb. 10 by local nature enthusiast Kate Gorman.

Gorman found the body of the recently deceased owl at the base of the tree where it was usually observed perched with its partner. There were no obvious signs of trauma except for a little blood on its beak, Gorman said.

After the discovery was made, speculation over the cause of the owl's death took over social media and ranged from natural causes, poisoned prey, toxins around the nearby Scajaquada Creek construction project or stress from numerous human visitors seeking a peek or a picture of the owls.

Rodent problems abound in Western New York, thanks to a warmer-than-usual winter of 2015-16.

That also led to a more than 30 percent increase in 2016 in rodent control calls to the Erie County Department of Health.

Peter Tripi, the senior public health sanitarian for the health department, said the county uses two "second-generation rodenticides" that are designed to be protective of humans and pets because known antidotes to the poisons are available.

Those chemicals -- bromadiolone and brodifacoum -- do have the potential for higher incidences of secondary poisonings, but Tripi pointed out that it's unlikely an owl feasting on a single rat would lead to a lethal dose.

"They're not eating it and the next day they're dead," Tripi said. "It's usually a multiple feeding over a period of time."

That even could take as long as 90 days or more, he said.

On the other hand, commercially-available rodent baits improperly laid down by anyone inexperienced with rodent control could result in lethal consequences, officials said.

Tom Kerr, a naturalist with the Buffalo Audubon Society, said poisonings by birds living in urban areas can be fairly common.

"Even if rat poison isn't used in the immediate area, hawks and owls often leave a place like Forest Lawn Cemetery to hunt," Kerr said. "It is very hard to prevent this, especially when we don't know where the poison is being used.  The best thing to do is keep educating people on the subject and help them find alternatives to using poison that can unintentionally hurt predators."

That's another reason Tripi recommends property owners concerned about rodent problems call the county health department or seek a licensed professional exterminator rather than taking matters into their own hands.

It was unclear what type of poison, or its origin, led to the owl's death in this case.

Forest Lawn's President Joseph P. Dispenza said the cemetery uses no poisons or pesticides on its grounds.

Gorman confesses she's become "obsessed with owls" and has been "doing a lot of research" since making the unfortunate discovery last month.

"I hope this story moves people to find another way to deal with the rodent problem, like using live traps or glue traps," Gorman said. "Once a rat is poisoned, it becomes disoriented and slow and this is when the owl finds it as easy prey. Even if the first rat it eats doesn’t kill the owl, the poisons bio-accumulate until it reaches a fatal dose."

 

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