Birds of a feather, it is said, flock together. Now consider the pair at Spring Creek — an adult Rio Grande female turkey and a 2-week-old great gray owl.
The turkey found the owl when it fell 50 feet from an artificial nest and began staying within a few feet of the young bird almost around the clock.
When people would approach, the turkey circled it, said Mark Penninger of La Grande, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist.
Its motherly instincts kicked in, and the turkey prevented the owl's mother from bringing her offspring a vole to eat.
The pair often sat together on a log, Penninger said. The young owl felt so comfortable that it climbed onto the turkey's back.
He said neither species normally carries its young that way.
The birds first were spotted together May 20 by Ray and Linda Rolls of Chico, Calif., who e-mailed their photos to Penninger, who went with wildlife specialists to see for himself.
They found the owl near its nest platform.
Spring Creek, about 10 miles west of La Grande, has a high great gray owl concentration, possibly because of artificial nests installed there.
Turkey keeps natural parents away
The baby owl had not eaten for days because the turkey would not let its parents provide food. The hen never fed the owl because turkeys don't bring food to their young. They keep them where there are insects for them to eat.
The young owl also appeared cold because of wet weather.
The four biologists decided against placing the bird back into its nest because they feared it would get the two owls already there so excited they might jump out or push out the young owl.
A wildlife rehabilitation center was considered but vetoed out of fear that the bird seemed near death and it was unlikely a center could take it immediately.
Fatal maternal instinct
They distracted the turkey and moved the baby owl to a leaning pine tree about seven feet off the ground to keep it dry and give the parents a better chance to feed it.
But the owl died May 23. Penninger said it was the turkey's maternal instinct that was fatal, since the infant could not get food.
Why the unusual adoption? Sometimes it just happens.
The May 2002 edition of National Wildlife magazine cites the case of a family of raccoons adopting a kitten and says gulls, geese, bats, coyotes and seals have done the same.