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How Fares the Snowy Owl?

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Writing from the studio as I watch the snow sift down, lifting the big rig every few minutes or seconds to fire away at jays, robins, sparrows and towhees in the snow, I'm keenly aware of my self-assumed role, shrugged on once again, of Press Agent to  a Beloved Animal. I know everyone wants an update, and now! I've got some humans here, me being one of them, who need attention in that odd, limboey week between Christmas and New Year's Eve.  I'm stealing away to peck at my keyboard and catch you up on the West Virginia snowy owl.

When we last left the owl, he was being folded up for packing in a cardboard carton for the two-hour ride to Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia in Morgantown, WV. 

photo by Michael Schramm, USFWS

WV State Ornithologist Rich Bailey put away the pole net used to catch him.

He'd been weighed and examined and was rumbling around in his box while everyone got ready to go. I turned my attention to a far less fortunate snowy owl, who photographer and bird bander Joey Herron had picked up on the highway median near Morgantown.  We can assume he got hit crossing. Perhaps it was the owl he'd photographed in Morgantown in mid-November, that I'd thought might be the mall owl. 

Like ours, it was a hatch-year male--three or fewer bars on the underside of his tail. 

The lightly marked inner secondaries also say male. There are all these ways that birds indicate their age and sex, of which we are largely unaware. It's fun to be hip to the bird code.

Joey helped me find the owl's ear under incredibly thick Arctic insulation.  Asymmetrically placed ear openings help the birds triangulate what they're hearing and zero in on prey hidden under snow.

This owl was going to veterinarian Jesse Fallon of ACCA for necropsy. It was even more emaciated than the mall owl (1100 gm), weighing in at 1000 gm. A healthy male snowy owl starts at 1500 gm.

This--running afoul of the works of man, is the fate that befalls so many wandering snowy owls. And our mall owl's odd fate, with bad choices of hangouts, a car collision and the crowds that gave him no rest, is a representative mix of weird anthropogenic stuff that befalls and often kills naive tundra owls. Yet the incredible work of Project SNOWstorm, tracking snowy owls, has shown us that many of these birds who come south live to make it back to the Arctic and tell the tale to their babies the next summer, and summers and summers to come.  If you haven't seen their website, it's fantastic, and it's where much of what we know about snowy owls resides. There's been an explosion in our knowledge about these birds since Project SNOWstorm was launched in the winter of 2013-14. Like all wildlife rehabilitation and so much worthy research these days, Project SNOWstorm is funded by donation.

Here's the first report from ACCA , upon receiving the owl in the clinic the night of Dec. 21.

The snowy owl from Vienna is emaciated but stable tonight. He has a right shoulder injury (a minimally displaced coracoid fracture) that will require 4-6 weeks of healing. Also, the owl is anemic, has many external parasites, and a bacterial infection in his mouth. Our biggest concern at this point is his poor body condition. He's been treated and is resting comfortably tonight. Our veterinarian says his prognosis is fair.

Jesse takes blood for a full workup, Dec. 21. Photos by Katie Fallon

He is a very lousy owl. Who knew snowy owls had lice? I'm guessing this might be a species not often seen around here. 
While we're looking, get a load of the mustache around his nostrils, that serves to trap and warm air before he inhales.

One of the really cool things about feathers is that they are movable, retractable. There are tiny muscles at the base of each one that move it around. There is a bill under there! Look at how he pulls the mustache away from his bill when he's sorting through leaf litter, hoping he's caught a vole. That was the only time I saw his whole bill.

At the clinic, the owl got a number of small meals, so as not to overwhelm his digestive system. From the get-go, he was hungry, and has pounced on every rat and quail he's been offered. 

Dec. 22, the morning after admission. Right wing still held down and out. But  alert and hungry!

Katie Fallon's report from Dec. 22: Mr. S. Owl ate about 300 grams of food over the course of the day. He ate everything immediately! His meds are liquid, injected into the dead rodent, so he got them successfully too -- an antibiotic (enrofloxacin), prophylactic anti-fungal (turbinafine), and meloxicam for pain and inflammation.


Naturally, you want to avoid handling the bird as much as possible, to reduce stress. So once the blood was taken and bones were checked out, the owl will be left in peace, and the fact that it's taking its medications via its food means no injections, and minimal handling. The idea with a "minimally displaced coracoid fracture" is to let it heal by itself. And it will heal if the bird doesn't try to fly. So all the high perches were taken out of the owl's spacious cage, and all it has to do is eat, sleep, cast pellets and poop. 

Dec. 22, morning. Photo by Katie Fallon. Amazing how much better this bird looks with some food, hydration, and rest.

What Katie Fallon calls his "rat mustache." This photo from Dec. 24 shows him full of rat, and a bit bloody, too.

His pink mustache helps me remember that however appealing this owl may look, he's a predator. He's nobody's cuddly stuffed toy.  A friend wrote: 

"Some years back the vet I worked for treated a rescued snowy.  Healed and released, but with no gratitude for the humans. When I remembered this my boss said once he’d treated one which he thought ‘understood’ that he was helping and maybe appreciated it....  until it recovered enough to express its true feelings.  Fuzzy but not warm...  they are majestic. So glad this one is getting a second chance. And that humans – some misguided but all connecting – are able to learn as well as admire."

So we mustn't forget that the owl is only as tame as he is feeling "down." And the better he feels, the less docile and seemingly trusting he's inclined to be. 
I had a saw-whet owl in rehab once who looked like a teeny tiny surprised kitteh. And when I would open his cage to put a mouse in, he'd launch from his perch and stab. But he stabbed ME. Not the mouse. So fast with his needle-sharp feet. Nasty!

Katie didn't forget to send an update on Christmas Day, when the 1100 gm owl had arrived at 1450 gm!! That's 3.18 lb. Looks like he ought to weigh more than a small cat, doesn't he? But healthy male snowy owls start at 1500 gm. He's well on his way to bulking up, and that is a wonderful Christmas gift.

He feels so much better he's started hissing at Katie when she brings his medicated rodents.

Christmas Day. ACCA photo 

From Katie: I just fed your pal Mr. Hissy Pants his medicated mouse. After hissing at me, he realized a mouse had appeared in front of him. He pounced on it with his big floofy feet and swallowed it whole. Then he hissed at me some more.


 I am particularly encouraged to see that his right wing, while still out of place, is not drooping all the way to his perch any more. Dr. Fallon has decided not to wrap it, since X-rays revealed that the displacement of the broken coracoid is minimal, and not all birds take well to wraps. Wearing a wrap can worry a bird and put it off its balance--and its feed. 

The best thing that this owl can do is keep eating, keep gaining weight, and rest. He doesn't have to fly to get food now. He's a very lucky boy.

Down the hatch with a medicated rat. A  perfectly formed pellet to the right. I'm looking at those talons, oh my. This bird is a puncture machine, a lethal squeeze machine.

His wing carriage continues to improve.

 Dec. 29. He has just swallowed a 70-gm quail. Its feet are only just disappearing down his throat. Great news came back today, Dec. 31, that he has tested negative for exposure to anticoagulant rodenticides! Another bullet dodged by this lucky owl. He wasn't getting much to eat in the ditch behind the restaurants, and that might have been a good thing. From where I stood in the mall parking lot, I could see three rodent bait boxes behind three different restaurants, as well as the owl.

Keeping this bird, and the rotating cast of perhaps 300 avian patients admitted to ACCA yearly, in clean animal food (farm-raised frozen rats, mice and quail) is a costly proposition. Hoping you will remember the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, and Project SNOWstorm, in your charitable giving.

In my next post, I'm going to share some thoughts on what might have been going on in the mind of this owl when he was in extremis. I've been thinking a lot about that. Thanks for following his story, and stay tuned.  This update is your New Year's Eve present.  A million thanks to Katie Fallon for the great clinic photos. Let's all visualize a great flying future for this owl!

Happy New Year!! I hope you dance. 



Thanks for the update. Happy New Year.

“Mr. Hissy Pants” with the “floofy feet” … LOVE it!! I remember a raptor rehabber I knew who worked with hawks, vultures, owls, once told me the bird she most feared, and would NEVER turn her back on, were screech owls — they’d attack you in a second once they had their strength back, no matter how “good” you were to them or how "cute" they were.
Anyway, as I was reading this post I was wishing I knew what was going through Mr. H.P.’s mind all the while, so GREAT that you’ll be addressing that soon!

Julie, what do you mean when you say "casting pellets"? I'm assuming it is different than pooping since you say he is doing both! Are the pellets made up of the bones, etc. of the prey he is eating?

Ok, never mind! I just Googled it. :)

@CowtownGirl Hi Lisa! Owl pellets come up out of the stomach and are gagged out of the mouth. They are made up of bones and fur, the stuff that he can't digest. They're odorless and dry and fascinating to dig through. You were almost there!

@cyberthrush I can only guess what goes on in the mind of an owl, but I may be able to get closer than some. We'll see. Thanks.

Thanks so much for your time in posting updates for us.
I so appreciate you and your blog.
Wishing a happy, healthy new year in 2018
for you, your family & Snowy Owl!

Thank you for taking the time to update us on Snowy Owl. He has been in my thoughts daily.

Posted by Anonymous December 31, 2017 at 5:27 PM

Thanks for the update. Though I have never seen a snowy owl (they do turn up in my region from time to time), I do find numbers of road killed great horned owls, screech owls and sawhet owls each year at this time. I am curious about why this particular time of year is more deadly than others. Not curious about why they are hit by cars having had several of them fly past my truck and car at windshield height, usually as they are passing through the forest on one side of the road to the forest on the other side of the road.

One time I came upon a pretty battered dead GHO with a dead crow just past it and a much less battered dead GHO just past the crow and wondered about the story behind that.

Thank you for your blog,Julie; it is the best one around;in my opinion. I am so happy that Mr. Hissy is starting to act like the majestic,bad-ass,silent winged killing, apex predator that he is. I wish you and your family a Happy New Year๐Ÿ˜Š๐Ÿ’™

Happy New Year, and thank you for keeping us updated. I am so fascinated by the cardinals and jays as they make their way around my yard. Never in a million years did I ever dream to see anything as beautiful as that snowy owl. We were blessed by his presence.

So...I was dancing to hear the news of the Snowy...and then I saw a flying WV behind its head and I did cartwheels right smack dab into my Willow Tree nativity that now looks like ISIS came through.

WONDERFUL news! Happy New Year, Jules!

I have noticed that Mr. S. Owl has become Mr. Hissy Pants and I can't WAIT to hear what his next name will be.

Thank you so much for this update. It's a wonderful thing to see this beautiful snowy eating and hissing away. I appreciate you keeping us posted. Happy New Year, Julie, to you and your beautiful family and all the critters you love.

Thank you for the the new name he has! Happy New Year..can't wait to read updates and all the educational information...

Thank you, Julie and thank you to all who are helping. This is the best holiday gift I could hope for. Please keep us updated...your posts and words and explanations are so thorough and helpful to folks like me. Hugs and Happy New Year!

Disecting owl pellets is an activity often done with elementary school students in science class and by parents with children at the kitchen table. Many places to buy them.

Thanks for the update, Julie. There was a snowy owl in Garrett, County MD last week perched on a silo, Wayne and I made the trip but we were a day too late. Love your writing and information.

Thank you, thank you for the wonderfully written words and the photos. Great to have an update with your commentary. I feel so grateful for knowing about you and your writing -- can thank your visit to McKeever Environmental Center in northwestern PA decades ago (my mom attended your talk and spoke highly of you afterwards - she's 91 now so it was long ago) and then my good fortune to live in Marietta, OH for 16 years. I suspect sometimes it feels like we readers are putting pressure on you to "produce." Know we are grateful. Kim in PA

I've been following the posts on Snowy (now Mr. Hissy Pants) with fascination--but this last one is a salutary reminder that wild animals are just that and need to be respected for what they are. You've got me thinking of Cris Williamson's song "Wild Things" from over 40 years ago. Thanks for the thoughts and the memory.

And Happy New Year to all at Indigo Hill!

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