This unhappy-looking tar baby is covered with a green, environmentally-friendly product called Tanglefoot.

It is a non-drying, sticky compound that is used to protect trees by forming a barrier against climbing insects. Normally it might not be a problem, but last October a farmer in upstate New York spread it on an apple tree so thickly that the product slid down the branches and pooled in the tree’s crotch. This little Eastern Screech-Owl arrived sometime thereafter, and, no doubt, has regretted it every day for the last six months.

A woman walking her dog discovered the owl and alerted the farmer, who called a local wildlife hotline. To his credit, the farmer was distraught and offered to pay any vet bills which might ensue, and has since learned how to paint his trees with a lighter hand. There were no actual vet bills to pay, as the two vets consulted donated their time; but in terms of time and labor spent, this is a million-dollar owl.

At first Lisa Acton, the New York rehabilitator who took the owl in, thought he was dead. She gave him subcutaneous fluids, warmed him up, and when he was feeling a bit better, figured she could clean him with Dawn dishwashing liquid, the rehabber’s tried and true method of getting oily stuff off birds. That didn’t work, though, because the product was sticky as well, so she tried another rehabber trick: the cream filling of Hostess Twinkies. (I’m not making this up. The cream contains polysorbate 60, which usually dissolves sticky gunk from bird feathers.

Unfortunately, no dice. Lisa looked up Tanglefoot’s ingredients, and found that it contained gum resins, vegetable wax and castor oil, the combination of which seemed to defy removal. She called Contech Enterprises, the Canadian parent company of Tanglefoot, but she was passed from employee to employee until she hung up in frustration. She hit the telephone and the internet, and before long she had two veterinarians and a dozen rehabbers in several states trying to help her. Since the owl was in no condition to be a test case, the wildlife lovers all rushed out to hardware stores to buy tubes of Tanglefoot and various oils, lotions, and removal creams; they then took molted feathers, which rehabbers and bird vets always have lying around on their counters, covered them with Tanglefoot, then proceeded to try to remove it by using various combinations.

Meanwhile, Lisa had covered the owl in cornstarch, which at least soaked up some of the mess, and was monitoring him carefully. Lethargic at first, he responded to her care with such fighting spirit that she dismissed all suggestions that she put him down. Lisa has fighting spirit-overload herself; she responded to questions about her decision by snapping, “Hey! If you ever fall in tar, should I put YOU down?”

Thirty hours later, Lisa’s husband Joe came up with the solution: Permatex DL Organic Mechanic Soap. So began a daily regimen, created by a network of veterinarians and bird rehabbers: each morning the owl was bathed in Dawn dishwashing liquid, followed by a cornstarch powdering; then each evening, Mechanic Soap would be carefully worked through his feathers, followed by a rinse with King’s Cages’ Feather Shine Shampoo. This lasted for two weeks.

Once the Tanglefoot was gone, what remained was to keep the owl warm, since his feathers had taken such a beating he no longer had the ability to thermoregulate. He spent the winter at Lisa’s and earned the name Godzilla, though no one blamed him for his attitude.

Now that spring is here, he needs to molt and get rid of his ratty feathers, some of which he has overpreened, probably due to boredom. Lisa is trying a falconer’s trick of exposing him to UV light 12 hours per day, sort of like forcing bulbs, but with light and heat instead of dark and cold. If all goes well, he will soon have a beautiful, shiny new set of feathers, and a substantial crowd to watch him return to the wild. Whether or not he ever lands in a tree again is anyone’s guess.

Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on more than one occasion she has received a female LBJ, or a fledgling whatever, and has been completely unable to ID it. Luckily she has birder friends who will rush to her aid, although she must then suffer their mockery. She is the author of her bird-rehabbing memoir Flyaway (HarperCollins) and the children's book Hawk Hill (Chronicle Books). Her recent suspenseful, bird-filled adventure novel Unflappable (Perch Press) was selected by Audubon Magazine as one of their Three Best Summer Reads of 2020. She lives in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley and is always up for a good hike.