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Snowy Owl Vet Check

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

I can't describe how it felt to come trotting up to the scene of Vince holding the owl. I'd imagine that touching that owl was like being able to hold a mermaid. The mythical, made real.

As soon as Jesse was ready, though, the examination commenced, a Greek chorus of Vienna WV neighbors watching.

The owl's head swiveled smoothly as he glared at each intruder. 

Jesse, momentarily repositioning him. The head is a good place to hold on. You'll notice that neither Vince nor Jesse is wearing gloves. Gloves are a hindrance when you're examining a bird, and they are scarier for the patient than bare hands. With owls, if you keep control of the feet, you generally don't have to worry about being bitten. Owls' main weapons of resort are their feet. You absolutely do not want a snowy owl's foot to close around your tender hand.  

Underneath that miraculous snow-shedding hairy floof (talk about specialized feathers!) are 1 1/4" long slender ebony scimitars that would very cleanly perforate your hand, meet on the other side, and not let go until it thunders or the sun goes down. Excruciating, and damaging. Remember, this bird can kill an Arctic fox, a snow goose...

So you may be sure that Vince kept a very good hold on the snowy owl's legs while Jesse checked him out. Eyes were fine. You always want to check the eyes in a car-hit bird, because the huge eyes of an owl are very vulnerable to impact damage, as is the optic nerve. No problem with his eyes,  hooray!

I'm sure that it's their round heads, with large, forward facing eyes, that make humans connect so thoroughly with owls. Of all birds, owls have the most anthropomorphic appearance, and being humans, we connect best with beasts that remind us of ourselves. 

So it was with considerable bemusement that I skimmed through hundreds of excited comments wherever this owl's story appeared: Facebook pages, Instagram, and newspaper posts online. A great number of them noted that the owl appeared very calm, as if it knew it was in good hands at last. As if it knew it was being helped.

Well. Anything's possible. But just in case the owl was not a cuddly grateful knowing wise "little baby," but in fact a very pissed off Arctic apex predator with murderous intent, Jesse and Vince kept a firm hold on his legs.

Because there's a thing that happens with wild things that are badly hurt and compromised. They can sometimes act tame and seem calm. And it's not until they start feeling better--in fact, start feeling like themselves--that the wildness kicks back in. And we wildlife rehabilitators--real ones like Jesse and Katie Fallon, and pantomime ones like me--much prefer to see wild things feel and act like themselves, even if it's inconvenient or scary for us. One of my favorite big brown bats of all time earned her name--Drusilla-- by trying to chew through two layers of gloves every time I had to handle her. I didn't handle her much. But I laughed the whole time, maybe a bit nervously, as she did her damnedest to shred my gloves and get to my thumbs.

If you've never been on the receiving end of a big brown bat's determined bite, you would be very surprised at its crushing power. You might even be terrified, if you hadn't had your rabies inoculation and weren't wearing enough layers of gloves. I mean, this thing isn't much bigger than your average mouse, but it's got razor-sharp teeth, lots of 'em, and it uses them with intent.

I made some videos of the owl's intake exam I'd love to share now.

In this video, Jesse listens through his stethoscope for any crackling or hissing in the owl's internal air sacs, which might indicate they had been compromised by the collision.
Next, he opens the owl's mouth and finds two white plaques inside. As far as we know they are bacterial in origin, and not due to trichomoniasis, but he decided to make an antifungal drug part of the bird's regime just to make sure.

Palping the owl's breastbone, he finds no pectoral muscle surrounding and padding the bladelike keel--a very bad sign. This means that, in order to survive, the owl has absorbed its own muscle--the meaning of "emaciation." Given rest and food, that muscle can build back up, but without intervention, this bird would almost certainly have perished. At 1100 grams, he was down at least 400 grams from the minimum weight for a healthy male snowy owl. A 35% body weight loss is in the red zone.

Next, Jesse checks out the left wing, then the injured right wing. He finds instability in the right shoulder, and a possible coracoid break deep inside the breast of the owl. As I explained in an earlier series about an injured goldfinch, the coracoid is a strut of bone that supports the pectoral muscle, and allows the muscle to contract so the bird can make a downstroke. A coracoid break doesn't necessarily rob a bird of all flight, but it certainly makes flight painful and difficult. Neither of those things contributes to an owl's ability to make a living in the wild.  The way the owl's right wing hung straight down his entire last morning in the wild, it was obvious to us all that he wouldn't be viable for much longer.


Next, Jesse examines the owl's legs. Remember that this bird has been hit--hard--by a car. Or rather, the owl hit the car, launching himself off a low wall by the Burger King and colliding with an oncoming vehicle's right front bumper. So chances are there is bruising in his legs as well. Jesse checks the feet, looking for lesions on the toes and especially the soles. When a bird is in as bad shape as this owl is, things like bumblefoot, a bacterial infection that almost always kills the bird, can easily take hold. Bumblefoot enters through lesions on the soles of the feet. So far, so good.


Before boxing the bird up for the ride to his clinic in Morgantown, WV, Jesse and Vince give the owl an injection of electrolytes and fluids. Rehydrating the bird is almost as important as feeding it. The fluids go in subcutaneously and are absorbed. It's a challenge finding the owl's skin, so thick is its downy insulation. This bird was suffering from many things, but not from being cold.

Field intake exam finished, a relieved but concerned Dr. Fallon gives a little spiel, then boxes the owl up for transport to Morgantown, about two hours north. State Ornithologist Rich Bailey and trapper Vince Slabe help. We are all so grateful to them for making the capture possible. 


This photo by Joey Herron is kind of meta...that's me on the left with the green iPhone, making the video above...ooh. 

The owl submitted to its exam with grace, only occasionally creaking and chittering. It's nice, in these videos, to hear the voice of a snowy owl, even one under duress. I had dreamt of touching him should he finally be captured, but that didn't seem proper. We were all in awe of his beauty and dignity, leaving the touching to the people who did it with knowledge and purpose. 

It was an amazing, splendid, magnificent day, this Winter Solstice 2017, the day a bunch of concerned people came together to take a suffering snowy owl out of a terrible situation and give him a second chance at flying and living in the wild again. 

I came home, thoroughly exhausted, but in a very, very good way. The first ornament Phoebe hung on our Christmas tree, which had gone lit but undecorated thanks to my preoccupation with our Arctic visitor...

was a snowy owl. 

Eat, sleep, rest, and don't try to fly, sweet owl. And maybe, if the stars align, you'll fly yourself back to the Arctic Circle come spring.

I get updates several times a day from Katie Fallon at the Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia, and I'm excited to share them in my next post. So far, it's all good news. This boy wants to live!! 

The owl's intake photo. There might have to be cuteness limits installed here. Because this photo's pushing it. I think Katie's in love. Not so sure about the owl. :D

If you'd like to contribute to their rehabilitation of the owl, please donate here. 


The car can deal... you crack me up.


I donated in honor of you, Julie Zickefoose, and in honor of my dad, who would have stood sentry over the owl to ensure no one would harm it. I’ve known him to go days without sleep to make sure an animal or bird lived, as I’ve known you to do, as well.

Hoping, hoping for a good outcome (while well-aware it's by no means assured, and won't be quick). But if it happens, what a grand, unbelievable story this guy will someday have to tell his grandchildren! ;)

This beautiful snowy is in such good hands and hearts. We hope for the very best. Thank you for keeping us posted.

Thanks Julie for taking us along with you.

So good to hear some good news for a change! Thank you so much for giving us such in-depth reporting on Snowy. He has been in my thoughts ever since the first post, and will continue to be, until he is released (I'm keeping positive thoughts about this!)

Posted by Anonymous December 27, 2017 at 4:06 AM

"Well. Anything's possible. But just in case the owl was not a cuddly grateful knowing wise "little baby," but in fact a very pissed off Arctic apex predator with murderous intent, Jesse and Vince kept a firm hold on his legs." Cracked me up!

Thank you for sharing so much detail! I never thought about why we identify with owls so much, your point about their flat face and forward facing eyes makes so much sense. Is there something special about the feathers around snowy owls feet that makes them particular good at handling snow? Or is it just that they are in profusion?

This is awesome. To have people like you all who care so much about nature makes my heart warm!!👍👍🤗🤗

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