As fierce hunters with impeccably engineered features that allow them to camouflage, spot prey in the dead of night, and swoop for the kill without making a sound, owls have quite the reputation as skilled assassins (with a ridiculous sleeping posture). The reputation of one particular owl however was perhaps slightly dented following a medicinal spa treatment at the Wildbase Hospital of Massey University, New Zealand, which revealed the less-than-fearsome appearance of a wet Morepork owl.
“Your Twitter feed needs these photos of a ruru (morepork) getting an antibacterial shampoo & blowdry at Wildbase Recovery Centre. This is why you don't see owls fly in the rain,” read a Tweet from lecturer and emergency nurse Natalie Anderson, which is how IFLScience first came to lay eyes on this owl’s exemplary glow-up. Wild birds, like humans, are vulnerable to internal and external parasites, which Wildbase says are all the more likely to take hold when wild animals are under stress due to illness or injury.
Unfortunately for owls, one of their most refined adaptations is also their downfall when it comes to wet weather, as their fine feathers which enable silent flight aren’t waterproof like those of other birds. “Morepork are water resistant but not fully waterproofed like a duck or penguin,” said Wildbase Hospital Recovery Supervisor Pauline Nijman in an email to IFLScience. “Part of the criteria we have for releasing rescued birds is weatherproofing. This is different for different species and this particular morepork was bedraggled when tested or raining. They should be able to handle a light rain and also seek shelter.”
Moreporks are around 26 to 29 centimeters (10 to 11.5 inches) long and enjoy a diverse diet of large invertebrates, such as beetles, spiders, and moths. They will also eat suitably small vertebrates including rats, mice, and smaller birds. They most commonly hunt using a technique known as perch-and-pounce, spotting their prey from their perch and launching an attack from above to kill the unwitting prey. They can also catch flying insects in the air, but their efficacy as a hunter is highly dependent on having healthy feathers that can facilitate rapid maneuvers and quiet approaches. This is why birds like this bedraggled owl are taken in by Wildbase whose treatments - while admittedly a little undignified - can make the difference between life and death for New Zealand’s native species.
Many of New Zealand’s native birds are currently threatened due to invasive species and habitat degradation. Animal rescue teams such as those at Wildbase face a big task in securing the fate of species on the brink of extinction, including Shore Plover, Takahe, and the much-loved Kakapo. As such, help from the public through donations and reported sightings are vital. “If you find an animal in trouble you should first call either the Department of Conservation (for native species) or the SPCA (for non-native species) for advice,” wrote Nijman. “If unable to do that then carefully pick the bird up and take it to the closest vet clinic or bird rescue.”