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Snowy Owl: Flying on a Prayer (And Creance)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Creance: Fr. A light cord attached to a hawk's leash to prevent its escape during flight training.

Have you learned a lot from the Vienna, WV, snowy owl? I sure have. Following this one bird from November 27 to January 20, tracing his movements and the fall and rise of his fortunes, has been a deeply absorbing exercise. From the moment I saw him, I felt a calling to find out all I could about him. And crowding up on the heels of that curiosity came the resolve to help him, because I could see he needed help. The mama lion in me rose up and there were a few people who took offense at my efforts to explain why they should back off and leave him be, but I trust that those who couldn't see the bigger picture at the time see it now. Advocating for wild things is not a popularity contest and lots of times it hurts the heart. My current mantra, and it is a useful one, is, "I don't expect anyone to understand my choices." Nice if they do, but hey. I'm going to do it anyway.

But oh, the 99.99% who DO get it, who were right behind the little team of writers and photographers, newscasters and editors, ornithologists, researchers, birdwatchers and most of all wildlife rehabilitators who took this bird literally into their arms and made sure he got you I am indebted. First, let's tell his story, for probably the last time. I realize that I'm behind here. Only two days behind, but in the world of social media, two days is forever. I have been helping kick off an inaugural birding festival (Wings of Winter) in snowy Tennessee, with two all-day field trips and a Saturday keynote. So I'm hoping that you'll enjoy the extra detail and interpretation, if not the timeliness, of the next two posts. I wrote them on my laptop, half closed on tiny plastic trays in tinier planes, with the person in front of me FULLY reclined in both cases.

He came to the Marietta Lowe's on November 27, as I was leaving for Ecuador. From there, he flew, strong and true, to a highway interchange at Emerson Avenue and I-77, where he decorated the Marietta signs for a week or so, and delighted a lot of birders.

Dec. 4, 2017, Emerson Ave/I-77 interchange. photo by Bill Thompson III

We know by now his story, we know about the cracked car bumper with his feathers tightly caught. We know about the broken coracoid, the aching and unstable shoulder, the weak and uncertain flight that sent him on a death spiral. He was crashing earthward even as he sat in the ditch at Grand Central Mall, and he would certainly have died had he not been captured and taken into care.

That spiral ended on December 21, when he flapped gingerly down to live bait on a lawn near Emanuel Baptist Church on 10th St. in Vienna, WV. He was packed in a cardboard box and off to the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia in Morgantown, WV. There he stayed and recuperated for a month. There he ate, and ate, and ate, his medications injected into rats and quail, so he never knew he was getting them. Except that he felt better and better!
  Dec. 4, 2017, Emerson Ave/I-77 interchange. photo by Bill Thompson III

I sometimes thought that Emerson would have been a good name for the owl, if I were the sort of blogger who wanted to name him; if he were the kind of owl one would want to name. But for me at least, he wasn't that kind of owl. He had a dignity that was beyond names. Not for him Luna or Yuki or Hedwig. Not for him a name that had been used in a movie, a name that would ever be spoken by the prattling humans far, far below. He was Owl.

And little by little his broken shoulder healed and his wing rose up into the right position, until you couldn't tell he'd ever been hit by a car. And this alone is miracle enough for me, that all he needed was abundant good food and shelter and rest, painkillers and antibiotics and antifungals, and his pitifully wasted, weary body kicked in and did the rest. 

And the time came when Jesse, his avian veterinarian, decided it was time to exercise, time to let this bird fly. His coracoid bone had healed, his shoulder was stable again; he was off pain medications and in good spirits, eating like a hungry horse. 

The thing about testing a bird's flight capability is do it without letting it go.  If it's not yet ready to go, you don't want to lose it to the wild, just as it's about to cross the finish line. So you have two choices. You can test the bird in an enormous run or flight cage, but that may not give you a good indication of his strength. And small wildlife rehab operations usually don't have an enormous, multi-thousand-dollar flight cage. 

Here at home, with broken songbirds, I will close up a bedroom, or all the doors in the upstairs hall, and see what happens when the bird is set free in those confines. If it circles the ceiling, well, great!! Out it goes into the wild again. If it needs more time and exercise, I set up a nylon screen tent out in the garage, and that becomes its home until it's literally bouncing off the walls. 

You can't put a snowy owl in a screen tent or a bedroom. They're strong, pointy-tipped and very messy clients. So you fit him out with jesses (leather cuffs) and tie a light cord to them, and you reel him out some slack and run like all hell behind him as he takes off, believing he's free! Free at last!

Here, I'm speaking for Jesse, who's whip-thin and fit enough to do that. On the  morning of January 14, Jesse,  his dad, and Vince Slabe, the ornithologist who trapped the owl on that sunny Winter Solstice day, fitted Owl with a creance and took him out to a level field. Here's what happened:

He flew like a bat out of hell. 

After each flight, Jesse watched him for any hint that his healed coracoid might be hurting him. This would be indicated by the bird's dropping or otherwise favoring the right wing. There was no such message from Owl. In fact, he got stronger with each flight. 

The keening "spear!" call you're hearing is a ticked off and doubtless territorial red-tailed hawk who takes exception to a giant Arctic owl being flown on a tether in its territory. I thought at first it might have been Owl calling, but Jesse said a redtail was attending the proceedings. 

 Having flown on creance, Owl was a different bird. He was no longer content to while away the hours in his mew, gobbling down good food, preening and dozing. He began to rattle and rumble around in there. He wanted OUT.

On Friday, January 19, I got a message from Katie Fallon that Jesse was planning release for January 20. Oh! I was working at the Wings of Winter Birding Festival in Buchanan, Tennessee. There was no way I could make it back for the release. I kind of figured that might happen. You know I'd have been there with falcon bells on! 

The plan was to drive the owl as far north as possible, to get him as close to normal winter range as we could. I suggested Presque Isle State Park, four miles outside Erie, PA. Its windswept dunes have hosted many a snowy owl over the years and millennia. 

Along with securing the necessary permits from the states of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, it was now time to band Owl, on the slight chance that he might be recaptured or otherwise recovered down the road. 

ACCA volunteer supreme Dr. Meghan Jensen, a newly minted expert on the genetics of accipiters and a Swiss Army knife for ACCA,  measures the owl's leg, to decide what massive USFWS aluminum band he will require. Meghan is an expert hawk trapper who was very sorry to miss the trapping of this bird. She went on to care for him for a month. Thank you, Meghan!!

Jesse measures his skull

and his culmen

and gives him a final weighing. Almost 1800 grams, up from 1100! He's edging into female territory, a real bruiser for a male! Oh how I would have loved to sink my fingers into those feathers, to feel his rounded out pectoral muscles. But he wasn't the sort of owl who wanted to be touched.

ACCA photo

I was pleased to see that only the barest trace of brown staining remained on Owl's right alula. 

You'll remember Vince, who cradled the injured owl so carefully on December 14. Now, it's all he can do to hold onto Owl, so feisty and vigorous has he become. He's chittering, struggling and trying to bite--all the things he didn't have the strength to do a month before. So much for "understanding when he's being helped." :) 

But I still believe he came to the mall for help after his wing was broken. 

Vince Slabe and Joey Herron, Morgantown owl bander and wildlife photographer, and Jonathan Hall, Asst. Prof. of Geology and Geography from WVU, would accompany Jesse Fallon to Presque Isle in a six-hour man-athon. Then they'd drive right back, high, they hoped, on having experienced a successful release.

That story and video is in my next installment. Remember, you're getting slow food here.  I'm cooking as fast as I can!

xo jz


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