Jacob Clark, Principal Consultant in the Liability Portfolio Management & Remediation team, won ERM’s internal Global Safety Week Competition with his experience of organizing the rescue of a Great Horned Owl on a project site in California. Here he discusses how the owl was discovered, the actions taken to set it free, and why going beyond in health and safety is important to him.  

“A what? A bird of prey? What do you mean?” was my response to the Field Safety Officer who had called me explaining there was a bird trapped inside a stack which was being installed to support construction of the remediation system for a project that I was managing. He explained that he could hear scratching from inside the stack and a talon was visible when he looked through the drain port at the base of it. The stack installation had involved lowering the upper portion of a 50-foot tall, 24-inch diameter stack through a 32-inch diameter hole in the roof of a historically protected building, which was only one part of a much larger project to support a brownfield redevelopment. We had already faced numerous challenges with getting the system inside and constructed within the building. Now we had another challenge to contend with: working out how to rescue a trapped bird! 

We reached out to a local biologist who confirmed that it was a bird of prey (e.g. a hawk or owl) and we should provide it with some water and ground beef to sustain it while we worked out a course of action. We tried a couple of different things initially to get the owl out, including dropping some orange snow fence through a rectangular shaft in the hope that the owl would be able to climb up and out by itself. But this proved to be unsuccessful.

Everyone on site was excited to help and pulled together to develop a solution. It became clear that we were going to have to cut a hole in the stack in order to set the bird free. But this was not a case of simply being able to go ahead and do that. First, we had to reach out to the manufacturer, through our subcontractor that built and was installing the equipment, to get the necessary approvals to make sure it would not affect the structural integrity or compromise the warranty. Then they had to develop a design for where a hole could be cut and how we would have to patch it to maintain the structural integrity of the 50-foot-tall free-standing stack that penetrated the roof of the historical building. Approximately 18 hours elapsed between the initial call at the end of the day when the bird was identified until the bird was freed the next morning.  

We were not sure what condition the owl was going to be in, so members of the site team were prepared with leather gauntlet gloves in case someone had to handle an injured bird of prey. When the hole was cut and the owl appeared, seemingly unharmed, there was a feeling of relief. Watching it look around before flying out into the open was an incredible feeling – it was high fives all round! Everyone on site pulled together with a common goal to safely free the owl – it was really a team effort, not just between ERM colleagues, but also our onsite subcontractors.  

Rescue attempt crop.jpg owl crop 400px.png
Credit: Jacob Clark Credit: Andy Rodger

The next action was to patch the hole and secure a screen on top of the stack so that history would not repeat itself. From that point on, any project I have been involved in that included any large openings that could invite animals, I make sure a screen or other suitable deterrent is considered, so we do not encounter this sort of incident again.  

Even though I was aware of added cost and schedule implications, this did not factor into my decision-making. Nearly all of our country’s native birds are protected under federal law, so there was really only one option – the cost was a tomorrow problem and we needed to free the bird as soon as possible! Plus, ERM prioritizes health and safety more than anything else, so I knew that I would have support from upper management in my decision to focus on rescuing the owl. It was, in fact, ERM’s robust safety culture that was one of the reasons that I chose to join the company in the first place, as it is something I value so highly.  

I wanted to share this story when it happened back in 2019, but once the stack repair and equipment installation was completed it felt like old news. ‘Stack Owl’ has been a local legend, so being able to share this story as part of ERM’s Global Safety Week has been extremely rewarding. Going beyond in health and safety is all about going beyond the standard of keeping people safe. Our people are instrumental to the success of our projects and working safely is paramount.

Jacob Clark is a Principal Consultant (Engineering) in the Liability Portfolio Management & Remediation team at ERM, based in California, US. As part of his role, he has managed the design and implementation of various site investigations and remedial actions to facilitate real estate transactions and property redevelopment.