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The Snow-Owl's Drift

Sunday, January 7, 2018

So I ask again: Is it asking too much of the human imagination to think that a snowy owl that experiences pain on flying knows it’s in deep trouble? If the answer to that is no, then this: Is it not possible for an owl in trouble to deliberately make its way to a place where humans couldn’t fail to find it, and wait for help? If the anecdotes cited in my last post are to be believed, this kind of self-awareness is within the mental capacity of a turkey vulture and a cottontail rabbit. If a scavenger and a “lowly” herbivore like a rabbit can make the connection, what about an apex predator, which relies on cunning and innovation to catch its prey?

When I think about it in this outside-the-envelope way, so much suddenly makes sense. This owl, which had formerly shown a predilection for sitting on highway signs, now stays huddled on the ground. It can still fly well enough to get to the top of a tree or building, but on the ground it stays. It sits still when people gather nearby. I was told that people were trying to get close enough to pet it, and that, a couple of days after it appeared at the mall, two men approached it with a blanket and a box in an attempt to capture it. They were stopped by the manager of a nearby restaurant, who was suspicious of their intentions. It leaves at night to hunt, but spends its days in this most unlikely ditch, enduring the attention of hundreds of people, a crowd that grows with each passing day. Was the owl waiting for someone to notice that its wing was out of place; that it flew with difficulty? So many people told me, again and again, "When it flew, it flew fine! It looked strong!" I didn't see that. I saw a bird in distress. 

And this is where it gets really interesting. I photographed the owl all Monday afternoon, Dec. 18, until dark. In between shooting, I tried to keep people away from it, with varying success. Most complied, but some ignored my entreaties, in the quest for the perfect cellphone photo of the “tame” Harry Potter owl. I left the mall dispirited and completely exhausted, too tired to even upload my photos. But I woke at 6 the next morning and dove into it like a creature possessed. I wrote from 7 to 4, not stopping for lunch. I wrote a post about the owl, about the stress put on it by the ever-growing crowds; about its mysterious injury. I didn’t know then that it had been hit by a car, but I knew it was badly compromised, and I sensed it was going to die unless I did something. I posted “The Parkersburg Snowy Owl” on my blog around 4:30 pm Dec. 19. The post went crazily viral, with more than 44,000 views in less than two weeks. And the spinning wheels, a bunch of concerned people  fighting a mostly losing battle for public consideration for this bird, got traction and started rolling.

Several more days passed while a concerned group of people, including State Ornithologist Rich Bailey, Rebecca Young from USFWS, Katie and Jesse Fallon from the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, raptor biologist Vince Slabe, Bill Thompson III from Bird Watcher’s Digest, Jon Benedetti of Mountwood Bird Club, bird bander Joey Herron and I all quietly conferred about how best to help the bird. We knew it should be trapped and taken into care. We had to keep the plan quiet, anticipating that trapping the bird in a public place would be difficult enough without a bunch of people gathering around. The owl showed up at the mall each day, and crowds only grew. Finally, December 21 arrived. We’d all agreed to converge at the mall at 10 AM to attempt to trap the bird and take it into care. Two local police officers were invited for crowd control. As I was loading the car that morning, I got text messages from Katie Fallon of ACCA, and an email from Jon Benedetti, who had been watching over the owl and educating the crowd at the mall since Dec. 14. Jon was at the mall, but the owl was nowhere to be found.

I was befuddled. How far could it go with that injured wing? And where would it have gone? Only a few minutes later, Katie texted again. Local birders Kyle Carlsen and Mollee Brown had located the owl about ¾ mi. from the mall, atop a building just behind Faith Baptist Church on 10th St. in Vienna. What luck! When Jesse and Vince arrived there around 8:30, the owl was gone, but it turned up on a telephone pole a few blocks away, gleaming bright white in the winter sun. We trained our binoculars and scopes on it, wanting to give it space so that Vince could set his bow net and possibly capture it. And we who had been following this bird with such hope and determination were heartsick to see its right wing hanging straight down from its side, fully extended.

The owl sat there in the bright sun for a long time: 6 ½ hours, to be exact, while we watched and waited. It never moved from the telephone pole. People drove up, snapped photos, and drove away. It was hard to miss; you could see it shining white from Grand Central Avenue. I moved closer and parked several hundred feet away to observe and photograph the bird from my car window. All day long, it never once tucked the injured wing up. It would twitch the wing as if thinking about drawing it into a normal position, but never did. The longer I watched it and thought about it, the more I wondered about why, on this day of all days, the owl had quit the mall. Why it chose to perch atop a telephone pole on a quiet back street. Why it stayed there for so long with its injured wing fully extended.

I wondered if the owl had gotten the message from us that things had changed; that it was about to be captured. This message could not have come in spoken word; rather it would have come in the mind pictures we who were most closely involved with it may have inadvertently sent it. That animals think in pictures, and likely convey information to each other through a kind of pictorial telepathy, is likely. One has only to read Temple Grandin’s writing (Thinking in Pictures is a favorite book) to know this. One has only to live with an animal or bird to know this. 

I could bring Chet Baker yawning and stretching out of a sound sleep in another room by visualizing a fun run with him. In a far freakier feat, I once brought him slinking back from chasing cattle with a mind-picture I didn't even mean to send. As a crazy pup, he'd ducked under a barbed-wire fence and run straight into a herd of cows with spring calves. I had run after him, calling his name, until I couldn’t run any farther. He was having so much fun nipping the heels of the cattle that he’d ignored my screams.  In despair, I sank to the ground, and a picture flooded my mind of his dear little round head, kicked in.  And even as a heedless pup, Chet couldn’t ignore that horrific image that made its way from my vivid mind to his. And he stopped what he was doing, ran back to me and crawled into my lap.

My macaw always seemed to know when I was about to clip her toenails, a procedure she detested, well before I fetched the towel and clippers. She’d begin to tremble and move away from me. It was the darndest thing-- as if she was reading my mind. Well, she was! I became convinced she was able to see the pictures in my mind as I planned my strategy to corner her. Toward the end of her 23-year life, I would pay her the courtesy of announcing it to her, to save us both the trouble of her waddling and flapping away in dread. “Charlie, as you know, I’m going to have to clip your nails today. I’m sorry. I know you hate this.” She’d step onto my hand, allow me to walk with her to the linen closet, grab a towel and spread it on the floor. I’d then lay her down gently on her back and swaddle her in the cloth without a squawk of protest. We had reached an understanding. Charlie didn’t like being surprised by a sudden mind-picture, but was amenable to being asked nicely to cooperate. We both knew, after 23 years, the nail clip was going to happen whether she fought it or not.

If this is what people call “animal whispering,” all right. I don’t use the term. I don't use "furbabies," either. Animals are other nations, in harmony with us if we take the time and make ourselves still enough to receive their thoughts, their hopes, the pictures in their minds.  I believe that we communicate wordlessly with animals, and they with us, all the time, but most of us aren’t “woke” enough to acknowledge that it’s happening.

So here’s the owl, and let’s let our skepticism go long enough to consider that it has been reporting to the crowded mall every day for eight days in hope that someone will be able to help it. The way a turkey vulture hopes. The way a cottontail hopes. 

Hoping, in a way most of us can’t even grant it the intelligence and presence of mind to do. And nobody seems to get it. Nothing happens. It goes on trying to hunt at night, starving and getting weaker by the day. And that wing hurts. 

 So the owl knows that plan isn’t working and it’s not stupid, nor is it crazy. It’s not going to keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. On the ninth day it gives up. It quits the crowded mall and struggles to the top of a telephone pole in a quiet neighborhood. And it lets its hurt wing hang straight down there in the bright winter sun. Even the least observant person walking by might say, “Hmm. Look at that big white owl there. I wonder why its wing is hanging down like that?” I think about that 6 ½ hours of pole sitting differently, having entertained the possibility that the owl knows it’s injured and might be seeking help. I wonder if it’s a silent advertisement, a protest of sorts. Here I am. My wing is hurt. Anyone picking up on that?

Photo by Joey Herron, Dec. 21, 2017
And the owl looks down and there’s a gerbil wiggling around in the grass. An easy mark. It stares at it off and on for six hours, and finally takes the suggestion we’ve made that it come to us for help. I’m not going to imagine the owl knew there was a trap set for it and had to decide whether or not to take the bait. But I do wonder if it got our mind pictures of checking it out, feeding it while its coracoid heals; pictures of it spending time in rehab and then flying back free to the Arctic? 

Photo by Bruce Wunderlich of the Holmes Co. OH owl, Dec. 2017

Did it get the transmissions we were all unconsciously sending it? Maybe my head’s gone soft. Or maybe something really special was passed between a young snowy owl and the hopeful humans gathered on 10th Street, behind the Faith Baptist Church, on the Winter Solstice.
Photo by Michael Schramm, USFWS

I simply cannot dismiss the possibility that the owl came to the Grand Central Mall, weird place of all weird places for an Arctic owl to appear, to get help. I believe that sitting on the ground at a crowded mall with your  wing crumpled and hanging down wasn’t as dumb a move as all the humans thought. I rather think that we’re the dumb ones, for taking eight days to figure out what the owl was trying to tell us. On the ninth day, he rested, up atop a telephone pole for all to see. And on December 21, as the longest night of the year came on, we finally got the snow owl’s drift.

As a storyteller, I like the way this ends. However. I know you are dying to hear some fresh news on the owl. Hey, me too! Katie Fallon (author of Vulture and Cerulean Blues, and my owl information connection, has been doing a writing residency and has been away from home, hearth, kids, husband and owl. She checked in this afternoon with this update!

 January 7, 2018, 1:30 pm. Jesse and Katie Fallon report that the owl weighed a (low-end but normal) 1500 gm before his meal today. The coracoid fracture has healed. His shoulder is stable. He's done with his antibiotics and is off pain medications. Still on an antifungal, just to protect against infection. Jesse has moved him to a larger enclosure today so he can exercise at long last. The owl feels strong!

Blubbering? Me, too. Thank you for following his story, thank you for caring, and thank you for remembering the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia in your generosity.  And don't forget Project SNOWstorm, which is shining a great light on the hidden lives of snowy owls. Each individual is precious, and has so much to teach us, if we will only listen.

A bigger enclosure? Show it to me! Also:  Put me down. And lunch. Now.


Mind pictures/ wondered why dog senses our travels ( only get out suitcases while she’s outside & then rush them to car)!! Cat on other hand comes to us when HE wants us to go to bed & YAWNS & pats!! Love the secret world of animal communication! SO HAPPY owl is progressing so well. It did seem to know where to get help....

Such wonderful news about the owl.
I completely agree on the means whereby some of us can sometimes communicate with animals. I have always said I am a dog whisperer (also a cat whisperer). I haven't assessed other animals. But time and again, people have said--oh, my dog's not friendly. Or my cat won't go to anyone. All I do is sit there, or stand, and within a fairly short time, the dog or cat is there next to me, nudging me to extend a hand. I am very respectful and never push the issue. I let the animal decide.
I look forward to more good news about the owl.


Come to think of it, I have assessed other animals--at least two species. We had a gerbil (our very first pet). One day, he climbed into my hand and did not want to move. I cradled him for a while, and then simply HAD to leave. When I returned, he had died. I knew then that he was saying goodbye.
And the other one was the rabbit we acquired (through negligence of a neighbor). This rabbit was kept outdoors by then in all seasons. And fed poorly...iceberg lettuce! Honestly! The most non-nutritious food possible. I began feeding him and giving him water. I bought straw to insulate his sparse outdoor hutch in the winter. I found a tarp and draped over the hutch.
One day, the neighbor said--why don't you just take the rabbit. So I DID! And the rabbit lived 5 more years with us--still outdoors, but now with a large fenced in area in which to run, a proper shelter along with a heating pad in the winter. And he too let me know when he was going to die.

I follow "Batzilla", an Australian bat rescuer, on FB. She often talks about the "batties" know she's helping them and don't struggle.. How do they know?


I’d love to talk to you someday about my father. Animals / birds came to him regularly. And he always said he understood what animals said better than he understood humans at times. Did the critters know to come to him? Not a doubt in my mind.

Yes. Blubbering. So happy this owl had such dedicated people like you to interpret his messages and do something about them.

Yep, blubbering here too. Thank you, Julie, for baring your heart and mind to us, knowing that some will call you crazy if you think that animals can telepathically understand what we are thinking. Rest assured that there are PLENTY of us who will call you brilliant, knowing that you are correct, and thank you for putting what we feel in our hearts into words.

Beautiful!... “other nations” indeed:
I know you and many readers are familiar with this wonderful Henry Beston quote, but for any who are not:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they moved finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

I have a really strange thing that happens repeatedly. I get a nagging feeling that I should call a friend that I haven’t heard from in a while. When the feeling gets really strong, I call. There is always something major going on with them or someone in their family, usually a life-threatening illness. Also, as a doctor, I made diagnoses that were not at all obvious. Sometimes I think I am a witch or just someone very attuned to illness. Being a doctor runs in the family.
There is no reason for animals not to be extremely gifted in seeking help for their physical ailments. They have probably also noticed that we are the dominant species on the planet. A dog was on the news several years ago. His paw was run over by a car. He walked to the vet’s office, entered when someone opened the door, went to the counter and put his paw up to show the receptionist. This dog had only been driven to the vet, but found the office on foot.
Thank you for sharing your techniques of visualization and announcing your intention of clipping a bird’s claws. I will pass this info on to my daughter who “borrowed” my dog, Kirby, three and a half years ago. We get visitation rights when she comes to our place with the pup.

Thank you Julie for the update from the rescue crew........I appreciate you sharing info.

Thank you Julie and others. My co workers and I work very near to the mall where the snowy owl stayed for so many days. We were so worried about the owl's fate because it had become an "attraction" that we stopped looking at news about the owl. We just couldn't bear it. But I eventually saw that you were there. I knew of you through friends who are birders. So I started reading again to see what was going on with the owl. We were relieved that the owl was captured but we were fearful about it's condition. We are so thankful that "our" snowy owl continues to improve. Many thanks to you and so many others for your vigilance and dedication. It was such a joy to be able to even see a snowy owl in our area. It is a greater joy to know that this owl may eventually be "good to go." Thank you again for all your great work!

Thank you for your work and wonderful writing! I have been reading your blog for a couple of years now. After reading this post tonight, I can sleep well knowing the owl is recovering! It is wonderful to know there are people like you out there who care about wild creatures in the world. I absolutely believe animals telepathically understand us, and we can understand them by opening our minds and hearts to them.

Well,being that certain dogs can smell diseases like cancer in people and Pigeons can be taught to detect tumors on MRIs with greater speed and accuracy than doctors for microscopic breast cancers, I would not doubt the ability of animals to seek out help from humans. I am so jazzed that Mr.Hissy is doing well and so thankful for all the people who have helped this beautiful Owl. I had not seen a Snowy Owl in 14 years but went out looking with my son and we found a female snowy sitting out on the ice of the settling ponds North of Fargo, ND. We also saw a Rough-legged Hawk and a GHO in a shelter belt close by.

I love the idea that the owl was asking for help and that it was getting feelings from our thoughts. There certainly enough of us worrying about it. Pets can seem to anticipate their owners' thoughts. I have heard stories similar to yours from other pet owners. It is sort of uplifting to think that all living creatures on this earth are interconnected. Really enjoyed all you have written. And thanks agin for the updates.

have you seen this video: raven presenting itself to a human to have porcupine quills removed

What a wonderful update! Thank you for sharing the good news about the snowy owl who sought help and received it. I hope the rehab center films his release, watching such moments does our hearts good.

I do think many of the animal kingdom are much smarter than we give them credit for.

Thank you for what you do so well.....

Happy new year!

Very truly yours,

Fangirl, Elise

One of the best, if not THE best post ever. Not to mention good deed. I have no doubts about the communication issues. Especially to those who HEAR. xoxo

"Animals are other nations" -- outstanding metaphor that keeps on giving! This was a beautiful post, Julie. Also, it felt so good to visit with Chet and Charlie again. Thank you for all of that!

I want this to be true and I don’t want this to be true As we were in the process of euthanizing my cat (the first shot to sedate her) she jumped out of my arms. Even though she was dying of cancer, wasn’t eating and could hardly breathe, she jumped away. I retrieved her and did my best to soothe her. I’d already told her, hours before, what was coming. I’m wondering if she’d sensed my mind picture and wasn’t ready to go :-(. So much guilt.

I’m glad the owl came to you for help Julie, and let you and your team help it.


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