JACKSON — Meghan Warren was driving to pick up the remains of an especially rare raptor Thursday when an even more perplexing avian visitor caught her eye.
The second bird, dead on the side of the road, sidetracked the Teton Raptor Center’s rehabilitation director from her main task, which was retrieving the carcass of a barn owl that had met an unfortunate end in a collision with a residential window down the road from Jackson Hole Airport.
The distraction was a road-killed pheasant and a live companion, which flew off near the Highway 22/390 intersection.
“I picked up two birds in one trip,” Warren said. “Two unusual birds.”
The dead owl would have been the first barn owl patient from Jackson Hole in the quarter-century history of the Teton Raptor Center, which takes in injured birds of prey and works to fix whatever ails them and return them to the wild. Although seen occasionally as nearby as Teton Valley, Idaho, records list only four confirmed sightings, Warren said.
As for the pheasant, that’s arguably an even rarer Jackson Hole visitor, being a short-distance flier with the mighty Tetons acting as a barrier for the nearest population in southeast Idaho. When Warren first spoke to the Jackson Hole Daily, she suspected the long-tailed game bird somehow made the trek on its own.
“It looks like a very healthy, perfect-condition bird only missing a couple feathers,” she said. “However it ended up over here, it’s been successful. Except for the car strike.”
Warren had Wyoming Game and Fish Department warden Kyle Lash on the phone within minutes of her find, and he provided an explanation that made the pheasant’s presence a lot less remarkable.
Just last week, Lash issued a dog training permit to a West Bank landowner who wanted to release 50 pheasants he had imported from the Boise, Idaho, area. Only about half of those birds were killed, which means a couple dozen pheasants went on to live another day in the Wilson area.
“These are some birds that got away,” Lash said. “It’s not that uncommon. I’ve been driving down Spring Gulch Road and seen a pheasant before.”
Just this year, in fact, Lash issued at least three chapter 10 game bird release permits to residents. Such game birds — which are raised in pens and are usually easy pickings for predators — get turned loose in places like the South Park Wildlife Habitat Management Area and the Wyoming school trust section located off of the Village Road, he said.
By Friday, chatter about the rare birds had reached recently retired Wyoming Game and Fish nongame biologist Susan Patla, who confirmed that the barn owl was unusual.
“They do disperse to the north in the fall, we know,” Patla said. “Many fledge in Utah, and one year in Teton Valley we had four or five of them in the winter. Occasionally, one will make it to Jackson Hole.”
Both birds are poorly equipped to tough out a Jackson Hole winter.
“Neither the barn owl or the pheasant are very cold tolerant compared to other wintering birds,” Patla said.
As for Warren, it was one of those work days she is bound to remember for a long time. The Teton Raptor Center office must have already been buzzing about the barn owl when she phoned her colleague, Research Director Bryan Bedrosian, to send word of the pheasant observation.
“He was like, ‘Are you pranking me right now?’” Warren said. “It was a strange day.”