By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

In a normal year, Jessica Braun will take in and do what she can to save as many as 100 birds a year at the Western Plains Animal Refuge.

Perhaps as many as 200 amphibians and reptiles will come her way each year as well.

But she was thrilled with the response in getting a single baby great horned owl back up into its nest.

"It was really awesome," Braun, a veterinarian and licensed rehabilitator said of getting the bird back up into a nest that was perhaps 40 feet in the air.

Of course, she didn't do it all herself.

She had a cadre of supporters, ranging from Hays animal control officer Pam Jones on up to the Hays Fire Department.

Where one goes, Braun observed of the fire department, they all go.

It all took place Easter Sunday, a day after Jones was alerted to the presence of downy ball of fur at the base of an evergreen tree at the Smoky Hill Country Club golf course.

After being looked over by Braun, who declared the owlet fit as a fiddle -- and simply ravenous, downing about 30 pinkie-sized mice -- Jones contacted the fire department for help in returning the bird to its nest.

"He was hungry," she said. "They will eat non-stop."

Braun even went so far as to fashion a nest for firefighters to haul up the tree to replaced the one the bird fell out of.

The firefighter ascending the ladder pronounced the nest good enough to use, and a second firefighter brought the bird up the ladder.

Mother owl flew away as people started heading toward the nest, but nervously flew around the area.

"They were afraid she would come and attack us," Braun said of everyone keeping a close eye on the owlet's mother. "She didn't."

The owlet might have been two to three weeks old she said.

"It was still all covered in fuzz and just starting to get some pin feathers," Braun said.

And uninjured.

"God made them out of rubber so they can fall 40 feet and not get injured," she said.

Typically, Braun said, it's best to simply leave the little birds alone.

"Momma would have found her," she said, and would have continued feeding her.

But, in this case, the little bird was near an area with a fair amount of pedestrian traffic and likely would have been disturbed, or might have fallen prey to a neighborhood cat.

There was no fear that the bird might be abandoned given its interaction with people.

"Birds of prey like that have a horrible sense of smell," she said.

That doesn't mean just anyone should latch onto a baby bird to "rescue" it.

"Even at that size, you have to be careful," Braun sad. "With birds such as owls, they've got talons and beaks."

Those items are precision instruments for ripping and tearing flesh.

"He couldn't do any intentional damage," she said of the owlet. "He was small enough he couldn't stand up."

Once Braun determined that the bird was in good shape, she was anxious to get it back in the nest if possible.

"As good as I am or try to be, I'm not as good as a mother owl. I can't teach them how to hunt."

What makes this venture stand out so much for Braun is it's the first where there's been an organized effort to return a bird to a nest.

Most times, she said, the birds that are brought in are injured or sick, only to be returned to the wild once they are nursed back to health. Or they're learning how to fly.

While Braun is licensed by both the state and federal government to rehabilitate animals, she's working on an educational permit that will allow her to take animals that can't be returned to the wild into schools and the like for educational purposes.

In a normal year, she'll get a variety of birds, ranging from sparrows on up to bald eagles.

By year's end, she'll process 200 to 300 wild animals, all of it financed through donations.

"We don't get federal and state funding for that," she said.

It's a labor of love for Braun.

"You just can't let them die," she said. "Everybody that comes in is either a baby or hurt. And I'm a mother and that's what mothers do is take care of babies or hurt things."