For more than 20 years, Gerry Powers has been the go-to guy, finding and caring for injured owls in B.C.’s Fraser Valley

GERRY POWERS SAYS the phone call came — as they often do — in the middle of the night.

It was from a couple of RCMP officers working in the Abbotsford area, in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver. They’d just picked up an injured barred owl and were hoping he could look after it.

“They brought it to my place at 2:30 in the morning,” says Powers, speaking a couple of days later from his small house on a wooded five-acre property in nearby Mount Lehman. “I do this 24/7.”

Powers then delivered the bird to the OWL (Orphaned Wildlife) Rehabilitation Society in Delta, near Richmond, a 40-year- old operation that rescues, rehabilitates and releases hundreds of injured raptors every year.

Few, if any, area volunteers have been involved in more of the society’s successful releases than Powers has. Since taking his first hawk to the society more than 35 years ago, he’s up to around 400 — more than half of them barn owls or barred owls. Most of the birds have been hit by cars, are young orphans or are sick from eating rats or voles poisoned by farmers with rodenticide.

“It’s nothing to get up at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock to go get something, eh?” says Powers. “Everybody knows me. The RCMP are really good. They hear about a bird, they say, ‘Phone Gerry Powers.’”

“He puts the animals first and his sleep second,” says Rob Hope, OWL’s raptor care manager.

Staff at the Fraser Valley Conservancy, a local land trust and conservation organization, also know Powers well. They’ve dubbed him “the owl champion of Abbotsford.”

“Gerry’s commitment is huge,” says Sofi Hindmarch, a wildlife biologist and project coordinator with the conservancy. “He loves it and he cares about wildlife.”

The “it” to which Hindmarch refers includes much more than just taking calls and picking up distressed raptors. Several times each week, early in the morning, Powers, who is 85, and his wife Shirley get in their green 1999 Ford F150 pickup and drive the Trans-Canada Highway as far east as Chilliwack, a 120-kilometre round trip.

IT’S SOMETHING THEY’VE been doing for about 20 years, after Powers took disability leave due to leg problems at age 63 following years in cement work. (“It killed me,” he says.) His objective on these drives is to catalogue roadkill. An obsessive record keeper, Powers documents all the dead animals they see — “everything from beavers to possums to skunks, raccoons, rabbits” — but his main focus is raptors and, in particular, barn owls.

This section of the Fraser Valley, especially the Sumas Prairie, a flat, agricultural lowland east of Abbotsford created by the draining of Sumas Lake in the early 1900s, is “sort of your quintessential habitat for barn owls,” says Hindmarch.

Unfortunately, that fact, coupled with the way barn owls hunt, also makes it a hotspot for collisions with cars and trucks speeding along the highway. Between 2000 and the end of 2019, Powers identified 1,891 dead owls along that 60-kilometre stretch of highway. Of those, 1,207 were barn owls.

“Other owls, such as great horned and barred, they perch, using sort of a sit-and-wait approach. But barn owls hunt on the wing and move around a lot,” explains Hindmarch.

Compounding the problem is that the roads on reclaimed land tend to be elevated compared with the rest of the landscape. “When they’re flying along, they don’t take into account that the road is higher than the rest of the landscape, which puts them at higher risk of getting hit.”

There has been one attempt to mitigate the issue. In 2012, when a new section of the South Fraser Perimeter Road was built, hedges were planted alongside to encourage owls to fly higher as they cross. “On existing roads,” says Hindmarch, “it’s hard to do protection after the fact.”

Powers shares his owl roadkill data with Hindmarch, who has digitized, mapped and published it so the conservancy can use the data to focus some of its conservation work. “He takes really good notes,” says Hindmarch. “What’s great is how organized he is, more so than many biologists I know.”

But while he’s good with the numbers, Powers — whose interest in animals began as a boy growing up on the Prairies near Brooks, Alta. — is lost for words when asked he does this. “I guess just when I started to find so many, I started keeping track of them in my daily diary,” he says.

He’s also resolute about watching for birds that have been banded. The age and distribution information that banding yields is “an important thing,” he says.

POWERS HELPS BARN OWL conservation on another front. At about the same time he started tracking roadkill, he also began installing nesting boxes. Without them, barn owls suffer from a lack of nesting sites as old barn buildings are torn down. “I’ve probably got 100 boxes up, right from Delta out to Chilliwack.”

As Powers has aged, his leg problems have worsened, and he laments having to slow down. Of course, there are other nest box programs. And OWL does have other committed volunteers. But Hindmarch says the network of people that Powers has brought together is unique in the area and almost impossible to replace.

“I wish I could find somebody who could actually take over what I do,” says Powers. “But I don’t think you’ll ever find somebody that’s got the interest I have.”

For now, however, he’s keeping up his patrols. And on those, there are times when he and Shirley come across birds that are injured rather than killed. For these situations, they’ve got nets and cages in the back of the truck.

The only difference today, Powers says, is that his wife does most of the captures. “Shirley is my co-pilot and my runner,” he laughs. “I’ve seen her catch a barn owl before it left the ground, an eagle under a bush. We’re a good team.”

 

This article originally appeared in the September-October 2020 issue of Canadian Wildlife magazine. Photo courtesy of Taylor Roades and CW.