COEUR d'ALENE - The screech-like vocalization of a barn owl could send a predator leaping out of its pelt.
But the frightening sounds failed to deter a small but determined and curious group of people who gathered Monday night to watch five of the owls released back into the wild.
"We want to release them as close to dark as possible," because they are "extremely nocturnal," said Janie (Fink) Veltkamp, a North Idaho raptor biologist.
They were released on private property near the intersection of Huetter and Mullan roads. It's also near where they were rescued in May, from beneath a tarp covering a stack of straw.
The location provides the owls with great hunting opportunities, Veltkamp said.
The five were pulled one by one from an animal crate and gently eased into a couple of nest boxes Veltkamp brought to the property.
One owl decided to immediately take flight and soared to the roof of a large nearby barn, where it perched.
"True to his name - the barn owl," Veltkamp said. It soon took off north.
Comb-like projections on their feathers allow them to fly silently.
The other owls would wait until dark, she said. They are all fully wild and have no connection to Veltkamp or another biologist, Blake Schioberg, who rescued them from the stack of straw.
Rob Lunceford, who found the owls, was able to help put them in the nest boxes, from which they would emerge when ready.
"You can't believe how soft they were - nothing to them," Lunceford said. "All five of them made it. That was the amazing part."
At Veltkamp's bird sanctuary, the owls were held in a large flight aviary to build up their flight muscles.
"I feel like it was well worth the effort to hold them," Veltkamp said.
The clutch of five owls ranged in age from 10 days old to 2 weeks old when they were rescued on May 12. The eggs were laid in the course of several days.
"They were extremely small," Veltkamp said.
The smallest of them would fit in the palm of someone's hand, she said.
They are now all full grown, standing about 10 to 12 inches tall.
The owls have been big eaters while staying with Veltkamp, each consuming approximately 15 mice per night during the past six weeks. That's at a cost of 75 cents per mouse.
The owls have been eating twice as much as an adult barn owl because they're growing, Veltkamp said.
Through her nonprofit Birds of Prey Northwest, Veltkamp helps injured falcons, eagles, osprey, owls and others. The nonprofit relies on private donations to care for the birds.
Coeur d'Alene is the northernmost range for breeding barn owls, which are cavity-nesting birds.
"They don't tolerate winters well," Veltkamp said.
About a hundred years ago there were more large open barns for nesting and hay fields to hunt in, she said.
"We humans actually supported barn owls," Veltkamp said. "The world has changed drastically for the barn owl."
The owls don't migrate, so they'll stay in the general area, she said.
The owls hunt with their ears.
"They listen for the mouse down below," she said. Their disc-like faces allow them to hear better, channeling sound vibrations back to their ears.
Because they hunt with their ears and get locked into listening and not looking, they are often struck by vehicles while hunting, she said.
Those looking to learn more or to contact Veltkamp can do so at www.birdsofpreynorthwest.org.