PERRY, Box Elder County — After a long journey, eight baby owls have landed in new homes around northern Utah.
"Today, with these birds, this is like coming home, so to speak," said Darin Day, an owl-lover since the seventh grade, who delivered tiny owls found in Idaho to artificial nest boxes Friday.
Farmers found the owls about two weeks ago in the Idaho Falls area in haystacks after moving hay, exposing the babies, Day said.
The owls were then left with the fish and game department, but Idaho had no artificial nesting boxes to place the birds in. So fish and game workers contacted the Teton Raptor Center in Wilson, Wyoming, which took them in, searching for new nests for the fluffy babies.
Lisa Day took notice when the Jackson Hole News ran an article about the owls and called her husband.
"I think I got halfway through the article, and then called (Teton Raptor Center)," Darin Day said. He told the center: "I do have nesting sites, but they're in Utah."
It took 10 days to complete paperwork and get the owls tested for avian bird flu.
Before the trip to Utah, the birds spent a night in the Day household.
"He wanted to leave them on the dining room table. I said, 'Oh, honey, no. … I think they'd be better in your 'man room,'" Lisa Day said.
After finally getting an OK to bring the birds to the Beehive State, the Days — who live in Star Valley, Wyoming — made the drive, owls tucked safely into carrier boxes.
Day, a native of Roy, put on climbing gear Friday and carried the owls up to artificial nesting boxes, distributing the owls in pairs among four boxes that he built himself, located around rural northern Utah.
The oldest of the owls are about 4 weeks old and the youngest about 2 weeks old, he said.
For survival reasons, barn owls cohabitate, meaning that when the babies are placed into a new nest with other babies their size, the owl parents will adopt them into their nest, according to Lisa Day, who has taken an interest in her husband's owl hobby since they married three years ago.
If the owls hadn't been placed into new homes, they likely would have been euthanized, Darin Day, 53, said.
Though only half of them may make it to adulthood, he said, the baby owls now have a better chance at life.
But why go to so much trouble to save a few birds?
"The West is changing rapidly. The Wasatch Front's changed 100 percent since I was a kid. And eventually, the numbers of these birds … will be minimal in the state," Day explained. "They won't be able to sustain themselves over a long period of time."
For Day — who calls himself "the owl man," according to his daughter, Tonya Elgan — his love of the birds of prey began when he was a seventh-grader at Roy Junior High School.
"It started as a science fair project. I was not a very good student in school, and I was actually flunking my biology," he recalled. When his science teacher suggested he take part in the science fair, he remembers saying, "Yeah, but that's for smart people."
The teacher then introduced him to a teacher from Weber State College who became Day's adviser on a project called "Diet of the Barn Owl."
He found his niche and later went on to participate in international science fairs and win awards for his work. He was also featured in a kids' version of National Geographic.
"You know, a lot of things you do in high school or junior high, you either forget, or it doesn't transpire. You know, you don't become a professional athlete. Very few people do. They have those dreams, but this is one I've always managed to keep close," he said.
Caring for owls became a part of his identity. "Being able to preserve just a little bit, in my own way that I could, then that's what I did," he said.
As her dad was up in a silo putting the first pair of owls in a nesting box, Elgan recalled owl-related experiences from her childhood.
"I remember finding magazines with him and his owls and books in the basement with him and all the research he'd done on them," she said. "Everything there about owls just intrigued him."
"Every year, growing up, we'd come out here to pick up owl pellets, find different owls. We nursed one," she said.
She motioned at hundreds of owl pellets scattered on the ground.
"So … your dad makes you come here when you're a kid and pick 'em all up, bring them to school, and dissect them all and put together the bodies," Elgan remembered, noting that owl pellets contain the skeletons of deceased rodents.1 comment on this story
Day once found an owl in the woods that needed rehabilitation. He kept it in the family's home, nursing it to health until it was old enough to go out on its own, Elgan said.
"They went everywhere together. That owl loved my dad," she said. "And then he let him go. That was a sad day."
Giving the baby barn owls a second chance at life in Utah brings the work he started as a young teenager "full circle," Day explained.
He plans to make new nest boxes and send them to Idaho.