LARGO — The owl's eyes are blacker than a starless night. Her feathers flutter softly in the breeze as she sits on the highest perch in the owl enclosure, staring at visitors passing by.
She is Matilda, a barred owl. The brown, white and gray bird of prey is the newest resident of George C. McGough Nature Park. She is living in the home that belonged for 14 years to J.R., a great horned owl that was released by vandals this year and has not been found.
Visitors are welcome to stop by to catch a glimpse of the bird that weighs about 4 pounds and is estimated to be about 9 year old. Before Matilda officially becomes part of the park's educational programs, she is getting used to her new home behind the nature center building, and park manager Joel Quattlebaum is getting to know the bird.
The process includes making sure Matilda is not too nervous to be tethered and used in wildlife encounter demonstrations, and also this week confirming with a blood test that Matilda is truly a she.
"Because of the size of the owl, we think it is a female, but only a blood test can say absolutely positively,'' said Quattlebaum, 21.
And what if Quattlebaum finds out that Matilda is not a she but a he?
"It doesn't really matter,'' he said. "But we would need to change the name from Matilda to something like, oh, Matt."
Matilda is a rescued owl that had been living for seven months at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores. In February, the owl was brought to the sanctuary by Barb Walker, a volunteer for the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. Someone had dropped off the owl on Walker's doorstep in Palm Harbor. It appeared to have an old injury — a broken wing that did not heal properly.
"One morning I opened my front door, looked down and saw this beautiful bird that had been left in a Bud Light box. I usually don't name birds, but for some reason, I looked down, and I said, 'Hey, Matilda.' The name stuck."
After Walker and Barb Suto, a wildlife biologist who is the hospital supervisor at the Seabird Sanctuary, were certain the fragile owl was healthy, they gave Quattlebaum a heads-up that the bird was available.
"I knew about J.R., and I always want to support places that use owls to educate,'' Walker said.
The nature center has taken steps to try to ensure that Matilda will be safe and won't fall victim, as J.R. did, to someone cutting the cage and freeing a bird that can't survive on its own.
"We've had a tough time this year,'' said Quattlebaum. "Along with losing J.R., there was a string of burglaries inside the nature center building. So in July, we installed a security system. We now have the security in place for Matilda. We see, on camera, when people get too close to the cage.
"I'll always miss J.R., but I'm excited about having this barred owl," Quattlebaum said, "and maybe in the future we might get a couple of screech owls."
While visitors can watch Matilda, she won't be taken out of her enclosure for closer viewing until Quattlebaum feels she's ready.
"Even now she is still learning my voice," he said. "I go out in the mornings and as I feed her, I talk to her quietly. My gut is telling me she is still a little skittish. There's no reason to rush taking her out on demonstrations.''
Suto, who sees more than 6,000 birds a year arrive at the Seabird Sanctuary for rehabilitation, says she is always pleased when a rescued bird that cannot be released into the wild finds a home in a place like McGough Nature Park.
"The big message here is that this bird who was not able to be released will be in an educational setting," she said. "I wish there wasn't a need for rescue organizations, but since there is, it's always wonderful to see a rescued bird serve as an educational steward like this."
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.