A great horned owl owes her survival to a soft-hearted trucker.
On Aug. 23, Nick Infante drove his tractor-trailer rig west on Interstate 84, navigating the steep curves of Cabbage Hill. Infante, who works for the Oregon Department of Corrections, was returning home to Salem from delivering his weekly load of food and other supplies to the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario. He reveled in the warm glow of sunrise.
About 100 yards ahead near milepost 216, Infante spotted something sitting on the shoulder and peered curiously. “I was getting ready to pass and saw it was an owl,” he said. “I slowed and pulled over immediately.”
He switched on his four-way flashers, grabbed his leather gloves and walked the 100-or-so yards back to the bird, not knowing if it was alive. As he leaned over to look, the owl opened its big yellow eyes.
“Her wing looked broken,” he recalled. “It was extended out and flopping around and she had an injury to one of her eyes.”
Infante phoned the Oregon State Police, hoping the agency would send someone from Oregon Fish & Wildlife. The dispatcher called him back and said Bob Tompkins of Blue Mountain Wildlife was on his way.
“Have him look for a white semi truck with four-way flashers,” he told the dispatcher.
Infante waited almost an hour for Tompkins to arrive, assisted him and resumed the drive to Salem.
On Saturday, the good Samaritan returned to Pendleton to personally release the owl back into the wild. He and his 11-year-old daughter Arianna had given the bird the name “Faith.”
Turns out the moniker was appropriate since the owl initially seemed a candidate for euthanasia. Lynn Tompkins, Blue Mountain Wildlife’s executive director, formed her words carefully when Infante called her to check on the bird.
“I knew the prognosis was bad,” she said. “I told him, ‘We will try.’”
The wing was indeed broken. The owl also had an ugly laceration on its back, a dislocated elbow, an abrasion on one of its eyelids, dehydration and bruising. Tompkins put the broken bone back in place using traction and started the owl on antibiotics, but survival looked questionable.
Infante called every week. At first, Tompkins gave guarded progress reports. Gradually, the updates improved.
“She just got better and better and better,” Tompkins said.
Sometimes, she said, there’s no accounting “for the tincture of time.” Gravely damaged birds sometimes pull through despite their dire circumstances.
“You provide birds a safe place and they heal themselves,” she said.
Nobody was more delighted with the owl’s improvement than Infante. Since the bird seemed destined to survive, he passed on a request from his daughter Arianna that they be allowed to name the owl. Tompkins cheerfully agreed. The bird’s new name was Faith.
“It fit perfectly,” Infante said.
He said he realizes that many other truckers and other drivers passed by the owl that day in August. Why didn’t he keep on driving, too?
“For me, it was a duty, an obligation. I grew up as a person who loved nature and always loved animals,” he said. “The owl is a majestic, awesome bird.”
Infante drove back to Pendleton on his day off for the final act in Faith’s healing adventure. On Saturday morning, he and Tompkins took the bird to the McKay Creek National Wildlife Refuge, across Highway 395 from the rehabilitation facility.
Infante crouched next to the carrier and looked to Tompkins for the final OK. She nodded. When the cage door opened, the owl took a couple of running steps and went airborne.
“There she goes,” Infante said.
He smiled a long smile as the bird landed in a faraway tree. This was closure.
“I wanted to finish the connection, close the loop,” he said. “It made me feel good to see her leave and go back to the wild.”