Alberta is very special to Fellow Mortals; she is 33 years old and has lived with us since 1994, when she was just a teenager.
Alberta is a human-imprinted great horned owl. She was raised alone and illegally by someone who didn’t understand that birds imprint improperly when raised without foster parents. A human-imprinted bird is at a disadvantage in the wild because it does not have the natural fear of humans that would otherwise keep it from coming too near to them.
Somehow Alberta wound up in a roadside zoo, where she was found when she was about 10 years old. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which holds wild birds in trust for the people, subsequently confiscated her and she was taken to the Raptor Center in Minnesota for her first stay in rehabilitation. From there she was placed for research for a year, during which time she was basically used as visual bait for the purpose of counting goshawks who made themselves visible for study when they came to harass the owl tethered to a perch on the ground.
When Alberta arrived at Fellow Mortals in June of 1994, she had been living in a dirty box less than a foot wide for a month. She could not open her wings in the small space and her only light came from a small barred window that allowed for food to be pushed through to her . Her jesses were stiff from the food that had accumulated on them and her feet were sore from standing in the same position in the cramped space.
The first thing we did after taking the owl out of the box was to cut off her jesses and put her into a 60 foot long, 20 foot wide and 12 foot high outdoor flight in the pines in the back yard of the country home where we rehabilitated wildlife. We gave her a name: Alberta.
Over the weeks and months, Alberta found her wings and soul once more. In the years she has been with us, Alberta has fostered and raised close to 100 orphaned great horned owls for release. She has cared for them tenderly, feeding them, grooming them and keeping them warm under her wings. Every one of them has become a wild free bird, thanks to her care.
An imprinted bird can never be ‘unimprinted,’ so Alberta’s home will always be with us, but every year her foster young carry her spirit with them back to the wild.
We thank the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which make it possible for Alberta, and birds like her, to find homes with licensed wildlife rehabilitators and find purpose as wild fosters and educators.