The baby barn owls, with faces like feathered marshmallow puffs, seemed ready for more sky.
They made looping arcs, swooping up again, and again, to grab the top of their cage.
They will be released this weekend, the very last batch of owlets that the Hawk Creek Wildlife Center will ever raise and set free.
“It’s a very emotional experience,” said Tanya Lowe, education director at the center in East Aurora, which is holding its annual Renn Fest fundraiser for the next two weekends. “You just kind of wish them luck.”
The dispatch of owlets, set for 3:45 p.m. Saturday, has long been a regular part of the annual summer event. It also will mark a bittersweet end to a decade-long program of raising hatchlings.
The Department of Environmental Conservation, which could not be reached to comment, now requires more formal and expensive electronic tracking of released wild birds.
Hawk Creek, a 26-year-old nonprofit center, is in the midst of planning a move from Luther Avenue to 14 acres it bought on Mill Road, and it can’t afford to upgrade what had been a simple, low-cost operation.
“Too much government,” Lowe said, with resignation. “The New York DEC and state have never spent a penny on the project.”
The center has raised and released 250 owls since 1994, when sightings of the birds were scarce. It also has a collection of about 90 rescued and wounded animals, including eagles, porcupines, African cats, Canadian lynx and even a river otter.
Now, Lowe takes pride in informal news of released birds. Within the last month or so, a friend who works as an EMT called her in the middle of the night to report that she came close to hitting a barn owl with the ambulance. The friend noticed a metal band on its leg, which meant it might have come from Hawk Creek.
The five young owls at the center now are old enough for one afternoon owl flight on each of the four Renn Fest days over the next two weekends at 655 Luther Road: Saturday and Sunday and July 20 and 21.
Barn owls will have a starring role among Scottish game demonstrations, a visit from TV celebrity Jarod Miller and hawk, eagle and falcon bird shows.
“We hold the bird for a just a few seconds,” she said. “Then we give a countdown and give it a boost. You get to watch them fly out to the wild for first time.”
The Renn Fest, which costs $13 for adults and $9 for children, has drawn thousands of visitors. It is the one time of year when the center is open to the public.
As Lowe made her way through a brick courtyard to the owlets – “We have to make sure everybody’s flying well.” – the other animals in pens got her attention, too, as they paced, called out and played.
“Everybody’s been flying great,” she said.
Lately, she and renaissance weekend volunteers have been working out “crazy dresses” and costumes so they can talk to people as “medieval” naturalists. The animals and their stories are the most important part of the festivities.
“If I can get a child to care about them, they will care about the ones that are in the wild,” she said.
“If they don’t know about it, they don’t care about it. They don’t take care of it.”