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Parkersburg's Snowy Owl

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

It showed up November 27, 2017, the day I left for Ecuador, perched atop the Lowe's in Marietta, Ohio. I found out as I was driving to Columbus, to leave from the airport the next morning. A snowy owl, in my own home town. Good grief. Oh well. Birding is ever thus, and I would be seeing all kinds of groovy birds in the next ten days. I'd have to miss this one.

Photo taken Dec. 4 2017 by Neal Hohmann. Note upright posture and wing carriage.

From there, this Arctic transient moved to the I-77 and Emerson Avenue interchange, where it sat decoratively atop the highway signs for about a week, and flirted with death by landing occasionally right in the middle of busy Emerson Avenue. 

Photo taken Dec. 4 2017 by Neal Hohmann. Note this bird's right wing carriage for later comparison.

That's the thing about snowy owls. They come from a land Up Top, where there are no highways, no trees, no cars, no roads and no people. They come down from the Arctic Circle.

People used to theorize that snowy owls come south in winter because there is a shortage of food up North. New radiotelemetry studies by Project SNOWstorm, spearheaded by my dear friend and hero, writer/naturalist/whizkid Scott Weidensaul and biologist David Brinker, are revealing a different truth. There are thought to be around 300,000 snowy owls on this earth. Every four years, Arctic lemming populations seem to surge. Lemmings (a large vole) are what snowy owls eat on the tundra. And in those years of high lemming abundance, snowy owls lay more eggs, and are able to raise more young to fledging. A well-fed female snowy owl might lay up to FOURTEEN eggs in a good lemming year. That's a LOT of baby owls!

To show his mate he's a good provider, a male snowy owl might ring the nest in layers of lemmings.  Why not swaddle your babies in dead rodents? Dinner they can cuddle with. 

Credit: Christine Blais-Souc via Arctic Raptor

There are 70 lemmings in this nest. Needless to say, with prey abundance like that, most of the eggs laid produce healthy, fat fledgling owls. And when winter comes and food gets scarcer, the young owls are the ones that get chased out of adults' territories. Some head even farther north and hunt sea ducks from ice floes, and they do very well at it.  But most of them head south. 
They don't fly south to stay warm; snowy owls are extremely well-insulated and built for unfathomable cold. They fly south because they have been asked to leave by the adult owls. 

It's nice when those fat young snowy owls fetch up in a place like this, in coastal Rhode Island. They look right at home sitting there on a sea islet, where they can surprise ducks, gulls and coots, often at night. 

photo by Geoff Dennis
 The terrain is much like the tundra they left--low, featureless, homey. At least to a young female snowy owl. She's not all that snowy, is she? Young females can be almost black with heavy barring, getting whiter as they age. 

photo by Geoff Dennis

These fabulous photos by Geoff Dennis track the traces of a successful snowy owl hunt in Rhode Island. Look at that four-toed owl footprint!!

A brief scuffle, and someone had American coot for dinner. The wings, left joined by a picked-clean breastbone, are classic owl work.

This is the kind of food, and the kind of place, a snowy owl should stay for the winter. 

Some owls, though, aren't so lucky. Parkersburg and Vienna, West Virginia, are all aflutter over the aforementioned owl, who moved from the I-77 interchange, and has for the past week been hanging out along Pond Run stream, that runs between Grand Central Mall and a busy four-lane highway.  

I'm guessing it's a male, from its small size and comparatively light barring, and I'm thinking it's going on 7 months old, knowing that most snowy owls are born in mid-May in the Arctic. 

It mostly ignores restaurant workers on their frequent path to and from the Dumpster just off camera to the right. 

This is the same owl that appears in the first two photos in this post. Notice anything about its right wing now? It's carried very low. I believe that this owl sustained an injury sometime after December 4. I'm not sure whether the injury is what's keeping it at the little strip of habitat at the mall, but the possibility is there.

I spent almost five hours with this owl on drizzly cold Monday, Dec. 19, 2017, photographing its every move, and also observing and photographing the people who came to see it. Because what I write about in my books and essays is largely the human/wild bird interface, I was fascinated to see how this naive Arctic-born owl interacted with a curious and growing crowd. 

Likely because it was a dark and dreary day, the owl was fairly active. They generally hunt at dusk, dawn and nighttime, and sleep much of the day. 

Concerned about the right-wing droop, I took as many photos as I could of the bird in flight. You'll notice a dark stain on the right primary coverts.  I believe it to be related to an injury that was sustained sometime after December 4, when Neal Hohmann photographed it in pristine condition.

I expected to see the right wing droop when at rest, but was surprised to find it also drooping in flight. Upon first impression, the owl seems to fly well. My photos tell another story.

In the photo below, the owl is braking to land--but letting the left wing catch most of the air, and do most of the work.

I noticed that upon landing, the wing droop was most pronounced, as if the owl were resting it after each flight. As if, perhaps, it hurt to fly.

The miracle of this owl is that it lives at all. The setting couldn't be less propitious. The road behind the onlookers races with traffic around the clock. 

Observers, maintaining proper distance from the owl.

The narrow strip of habitat the owl has found is bordered on both sides by parking lots and restaurants.
A bit closer, but still respectful of its personal distance.

The bird is constantly approached by people wanting photos. And we all know how good cellphones are at taking bird photos. So everyone wants to get closer, closer, closest.

I can't say I enjoyed my stint in the Panera parking lot, watching this bird endure the attentions of its admirers. After fretting for awhile, I finally called from my station across the creek to this person. "Could you please back off and give the owl some room?" She replied, "I know. We've been told." And with that, moved even closer.

Owls are magical. Owls are charismatic. Everybody loves an owl, and a snowy owl is the Ultimate Owl. Hedwig the Messenger. 

But this is not a theatrically trained owl. Nor is it a pet. Nor is this a petting zoo. And the signs that an owl is getting upset are far too subtle to be noticed by someone who would walk within 10' of it, ignoring others' requests to stay back.

Want to know how to tell you're ticking off an owl?

It turns and looks at you. That's all. It just stares at you.

And then, suddenly, it leaves, because the close approach has flushed it. It's been forced to fly.
But you've got a photo of it looking right at you!
And then, maybe, a flight photo, the shot everyone wants.

So walking up to an owl has dual rewards for a cellphone photographer who assumes that the owl is completely unbothered by their presence. It doesn't seem frightened, so why not walk right up to it?

But being flushed isn't good for the owl. First, it's either trying to sleep or hunt, and by trying to get a cellphone photo of it, you're forcing it to move away from where it wanted to be.

Second, the energy it expends getting away from people is fat that doesn't get laid down to help it through hard times. It's fat that gets burned. Keeping the owl moving all day keeps it from sleeping, keeps it from maintaining its body fat.

Third, thanks to its injury, this particular owl likely experiences pain on flying. So let's not force it to fly.

The owl fled across the creek to the other side, surprising this photographer who'd been keeping a respectful distance from it. It turned and glared at her, and bless her, she quickly moved farther away! Kudos! Way to be.

 During the time I watched, the owl made three unsuccessful attempts to capture rodents in the grass.

Oh, how I'd hoped to see it capture something, but it came up empty-taloned for almost five hours of trying.

Each time it flew, my heart leapt into my throat. A gasp arose from the people standing around. We all tried to get photos.

The habitat it's using is a ditched and rip-rapped, thoroughly tamed stretch of Pond Run. It's the only remotely "wild" strip in the mall complex. Interestingly, the banks of the stream are heavily laced and riddled with burrows. There isn't sufficient aquatic vegetation or cover to support a population of muskrats here. Rather, I think the small burrows under those overhanging banks have been made by rats. My conclusion: Pond Run is a rat highway. The owl knows this. I figured it out, by looking at the available evidence. But the people I spoke with were unaware of why the owl would choose to be here.

And here is the even greater dilemma. If this owl is catching rats and mice behind the restaurants (Panera, Ruby Tuesday's, Popeye's Fried Chicken, Steak and Shake and Olive Garden), then that's because the rodents are attracted to the Dumpsters behind each building. And behind each restaurant, near their Dumpsters, we found grey or black plastic bait boxes that dispense rat poison. Secondary kill from rat poison is one of the leading causes of mortality in snowy owls that venture into populated areas.

This was the first thing I thought of when I heard where this owl was hanging out, and it remains the thing that concerns me most deeply, even more than the possibility of its getting hit by a car**see update below or flying into a powerline or being boxed up and taken home by some well-meaning Good Samaritan. And yes, the wonderful manager at Ruby Tuesday's told me he stopped two very large men who approached the owl with a blanket and a cardboard box, intending to capture it and...? They weren't happy at his intervention, but he held fast, telling them to leave it alone. This same gentleman rushed to remove the rat bait station when we informed him of the problem. "I don't know why I didn't put that together!" he said, "But I'm so glad you told me!"

Panera's manager was similarly appalled at the possibility that their bait station could result in the owl's demise, and removed it immediately. I had less success at Popeye's Fried Chicken, where the manager told  me she'd have to check with the central office to see if it was OK for her to remove the bait station. I did a lot of smiling through gritted teeth yesterday. A lot of being nice when I felt like stamping my feet and demanding basic respect for an innocent owl. By dusk, I was dead tired and pretty discouraged at this bird's prospects for making it back to the Arctic in spring 2018.

I'd been watching how its right wing hung, in flight and especially after it flew.  

I'd seen it awakened again and again and again when it tried to catch a few winks. 

I don't begrudge anyone, much less sweet children, a close look at a snowy owl. For all I knew, birdwatchers were being born before my eyes! And who was I to criticize? I was having lots of close looks, albeit through 8-power binoculars, a spotting scope, and a 300 mm. telephoto lens. 

And as I watched, I began to wonder if this bird might be a sort of sacrificial lamb, sent to amuse the people of the Mid-Ohio Valley, and never meant to make it through the winter. 
That may sound strangely maudlin, but I began to think maybe I should just give up on it and walk away. Between the rat poison, the cars, the highway, the overhead wires, and the people who keep trying to get close to it, what real chance does it have?

Can we respect it and give it the space to sleep and hunt? Or will we love it to death?

A more respectful distance maintained here. 

And then I surprised myself by starting to smile at the people watching this owl. By this restaurant employee, peeking out the back door to see if it was still there. At the joy on his face at seeing it was. I noticed that the owl paid absolutely no attention to the restaurant workers, because it seemed to know they weren't going to bother it. They came and went to the Dumpster with impunity, and the bird never so much as glanced at them.

The owl hangs out on an HVAC unit and a relay box that's one of its favorite perches.  It feels a little safer there, with only the restaurant workers passing by.

As dusk fell, it preened a little.

It rested, its hurt wing hanging very low now, the mysterious brown stain--perhaps from blood, very much in evidence.

And in its resting pose, it was a glorious thing, an unexpected thing, a shake your head in wonder gift dropped from the sky.
Some people crept up along the Dumpster fence to get a photo. It all connected and made a circle in my mind.        

                            Mall=lots of people=restaurants=Dumpsters=rat food=owl food=
                                                                  why the owl's here.

                        Snowy owl=glimpse of the Arctic=Harry Potter=selfie bait=even more people=
                                                                      I should let this go.

This young woman posed for an owl selfie, from a respectful distance. Her lovely face was alight with the magic of it all. 

And I thought, well, maybe it's worth it for one owl to bring so many people such joy. Even if it doesn't make it, maybe it's found its purpose. 

I worry about that hurt wing, that wrist, which looks swollen to me. 
I've sent my photos to the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, located in Morgantown, WV, and their veterinarians are standing ready to help should something else befall this owl. 
Rebecca Young, a USFWS employee, of West Virginia's Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, will be our connection to the USFWS, which should make the call on whether to intervene on its behalf.

As I left, one woman remained by the Dumpster, soaking in the mystery and magic of the Arctic owl. 

A visitor,  a messenger, who has come to a most unlikely place, at Christmastime. 

I thought about a lowly stable, and the transformative power of love. 

I've been unable to do anything since yesterday noon but prepare this post, in the hope of somehow helping the owl by spreading the word about why it's here and what we should do to help it.

Bill and Rebecca, John, and I were on WTAP's evening news, talking about the owl and explaining why we should all keep our distance from it, and word is that today, Dec. 19, people are being better about giving it some space. Word comes from my friend Ryan, who has been spreading the word to give it some distance on social media and in person, that the owl had a solid three-hour nap today, not moving a muscle, and it was starting to hunt as he left. 

"It was nice today being able to relax and actually enjoy the peace of it. I felt good for it knowing it was actually conked out. You could see how relaxed it was when it was preening itself. I sat in my car in front of it and it almost put me to sleep watching it."

That made me smile. Together, we will all watch over this bird, and hope for the best. I'll keep you posted. 

UPDATE, Dec. 19, 2017, 7:50 PM: A man drove up to two local birders who were watching it, and said he had hit the owl with his vehicle when it was over by Emerson & I-77. (This would have been before it showed up at the mall). It flew off a low wall near Burger King into the right front bumper of his vehicle. The bumper was cracked (from some other collision I'd guess) and had Snowy Owl feathers in the crack. He finally found someone to whom to report it. 

This is one of those times when I don't like being proven correct.


It *is* a double-edged sword for sure. Just its presence is exposing people to something that may benefit ALL birds in the long run. Glad you all were there to observe and see if, indeed, someone needs to intervene to get this little one ready to fly back north when the time comes. Thank you for sharing the beauty here. xo

This post breaks my heart a bit. I want that beautiful owl rescued and fed good food while its wing heals. I'm glad people are happy to see it, but I want a happy owl too. If those things can coincide, then okay, but if not... Uh-oh, I'm suddenly in love with an owl that I want protected in every way possible.

You do not have my permission to post my photo slamming me making out like I was close to the owl . Which I in fact was not as close as you make out I was. And no I did not get a picture of it in flight . So you can remove my picture with your slurs anytime !! Or would you rather face me in the court room ?

Yeah, I don’t think there exists any more magical creature on Earth than a Snowy Owl — funny how some creatures just have that sort of charisma… and... most don’t. For whatever reason I’ve always had a special love of white birds: white owls, white egrets, white cockatoos, white pelicans, white doves (…I do make an exception for seagulls ;)
Anyway, good luck; I have a nervous feeling about the outcome here, but even if not good, at least the bird will have spread some much needed joy… to the world.

I expect all of this slur to be removed including my feet and legs.

triggered much?

Just curious, did you report your concerns to the ODNR Division of Wildlife district (4?) office?

Ugh, just saw your update regarding the vehicle collision. So will the snowy now be trapped and sent off to a licensed rehabilitator?

Please, please tell me it can be captured and treated!? Thank you so much for the time you took to inform people about rat poison, distance etc!! You are an Angel, Julie Zickefoose!!!!!!

You have No case Marjorie, just sayin.

Marjorie, you called yourself out. Your name was not mentioned and your face is not shown. looks like you were pretty close. It is what it is.

This post is just like a snowy owl itself--both magical and heartbreaking. I know you must feel powerless, but you are the best guardian angel this owl could ever have.

You called yourself out. She never gave a name and no one can see your face. The fact of the matter is you were too close, and in a public place. If you'd already been asked to back off but chose to move closer, that's not slur, that's statement of fact.There's an old saying that goes as follows...
"It is one thing to remain silent and be thought a fool. It's another to open your mouth and remove all doubt."
You, my dear Marjorie, just removed all doubt. Sucks to be you.

Julie...thanks for sharing. Best information I have seen.

You are what’s wrong with this world SMH 🤦‍♀️ court room? Step back from the bird.

The owl is in West Virginia, not Ohio. The post mentions which authorities have been contacted.

Would be nice if the bird could be captured and injuries evaluated for treatment and then released to the wilds.

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If you're in a public space people can take and share photos of you.

Thank you for the background on this magical creature & your attempts to protect it. So sad to hear that it is injured.

I am surprised they have not stepped in and done just that Darlene! It is obvious it's wing is pretty damaged and it's having problems hunting and flying....and not getting the rest it needs to recuperate...I just really wish they would go ahead and bring it in and rehab it and let it go if the wound is not permanent, because if it is, he won't be going back North anytime soon, if ever.. :(

Excellent article..thank you for the information and the caring that comes through in your writing. Nature has a way to cause many emotions...I truly hope this little owl can have a happy outcome.

Hang in there, Zick. You're doing good.

Julie, words written so well for the most impact. I had to stop reading for fear of the worse and concern several times.

But Marjorie's own outing and threat have me outraged because her attitude is too common. Thankfully most of the public reacted well to words of caution.

Marjorie Wright, you do not get to decide if you were too close. The bird will tell us and as Julie explained and showed in her photos of you, you were too close to the bird.

Anybody can take a picture of you in a public place. Good luck in that courtroom.

Julie, thank you for this informative post. It curbed my gut reaction to jump in the car and head south to the snowy owl (I missed them a few years ago when they were spotted in Ohio's Amish country and in Erie, PA). I'm giving it space as it already has a full audience and am appreciating your words and images instead. You're doing wonderful work. I have a friend who wrote to me about her bird observations at her feeders and referred to it as the "Julie Zickefoose effect." Love that.

Marjorie, since you revealed your irate self, I get to share a few words. You may not realize it yet but this is a learning moment for you, for all of us. And that wisdom is a gift that will benefit the birds you so admire. Now you (and we other readers) know more than before and can do better in the future. Please just say thank you, move ahead, and chose kindness. There's already way too much anger in our world. Merry Christmas!

Kim in PA

Well said!

Yipee! I just read on her FB page that the owl was taken to a rehab and is, thankfully, under vet care now. I was very concerned.

Julie, today our kitty was able to get to a Hummingbird on our deck. The bird is now is a box, very much alive, but with wing damage. I need advice.... on what to do?? Where to go. I am hoping that you can help me to figure out the best possible solution. Marcia Shubert 9/28/2018

Well, @rubyshuby that stinks that your cat damaged the hummingbird. I'm sorry to hear that. Wing damage is difficult to repair in such a small bird. The Ohio Wildlife Center clinic number is 614 761 0134. They are in Reynoldsburg OH on Billingsley Rd. off I 270. They have vets who can tend to it. Do not say it is from WV or they may not be able to accept it. Say it's from Ohio. Offer it sugar water, 1 part sugar, to 4 parts water, in a small feeder it can access. Get it into care. If you want to email me at juliezickefooseatgmaildotcom, I can maybe help a little more. I can't take it, sorry.

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