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Can a Snowy Owl Ask for Help?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Let’s consider the journey of this young, naïve owl from the Arctic Circle to Parkersburg/Vienna, West Virginia.  What can he know of humans? What can he know of power lines, highways, fast-food restaurants and speeding cars? He may not have even seen a tree before he started his journey. He’s a blank slate. For whatever reason, he ends up sitting on signs at the intersection of I-77 and Emerson Avenue. Sometimes he lands on the road and sits there for a while. He’s finding mice and voles, maybe the occasional rat. On December 6, he launches off a low wall in front of the Burger King and flies into the right front bumper of a beat-up silver car. The driver, a kind man with a gray ponytail hanging down the middle of his back, is horrified. The impact was hard, enough to embed white flank feathers so firmly in his cracked bumper that he can’t pull them out. He thinks he’s killed the bird. 

Photo by Tammy Anderson

But the owl flops off and, as far as I have heard, no one sees or photographs it again for eight days, until December 14, when it turns up in a creek bed that runs through an inland sea of asphalt at the Grand Central Mall. The old TV and newspaper ads for the mall said, “Grand Central Mall, where time doesn’t matter at all.” I always wondered if that slogan left anyone else spooked.

I’ve been thinking about this owl ever since I saw it for the first time at the mall on December 19. I’d tried for it once before on December 12, back at the highway exit, but couldn’t find it. I didn’t know then that it had already been hurt and vanished from view. I’ve reconstructed the chain of events presented here from my conversations with other birders and owl watchers. I’ve been thinking about why that owl flew, injured as it was, four miles from the highway interchange down into the heavily developed plastic strip of Emerson and Grand Central Avenues, leading up to the mall. Why it ended up, on Dec. 14, in the absolute center of human abundance, and settled there. Why it seemed oddly content to be ringed by people all day long for a week running. 

Why it sometimes flew away from one person and right up to another and sat on the ground at their feet, so tame, so otherworldly calm and seemingly trusting.

There are any number of places one could go on such a train of thought. First, we can dispel any notion that the owl is, in fact, tame. Nobody keeps snowy owls; they don’t escape from captivity and wind up in shopping malls. It’s inarguably wild, part of an invasion of mostly sub-adult birds following a great lemming year on the tundra. More lemmings means more food for baby owls, and more owls live to fledge and fly south the following winter. More to the point, however, we’ve established that it got hurt before it turned up at the mall. The owl’s been diagnosed with a broken coracoid on the right side of his breastbone, and instability in his right shoulder joint, making for weak and undoubtedly painful flight.

The more I think about the way things rolled out for this owl, and the way he behaved the day I hunkered down for six hours and watched him interact with the crowd that gathered at the mall, the more I think he was there for a reason. I think he may have come there, looking for help. I know this will sound preposterous to most, and I don’t care. I didn’t make this notion up. It presented itself to me.

 I’m remembering a story my trusted birder friend Charlie Kennedy told me, about a turkey vulture who was hit on the road in front of his rural Alabama home. How, after the screech of brakes, a newly busted vulture came walking up Charlie’s driveway, dragging one wing, and kept walking, right up to Charlie. It looked up at him silently. “Go on into the woods, old son. You’re done for. There’s nothing I can do for you,” Charlie said, and turned to go get a shovel out of his toolsheld. When he came out, he nearly tripped over the vulture, which had followed him into the shed. Later, It followed him up the steps to the kitchen, still dragging its wing. It had no hope of flying away. It undoubtedly knew its life as a creature of the air was over. Its choice was to die slowly in the woods, or seek help. Charlie finally called a wildlife rehab clinic and took the vulture there, where, sadly, it died sometime later.

 I can’t get Charlie’s story out of my head. I had a similar experience with a turkey vulture that I found standing by a busy road, its head hanging low. I stopped, knelt beside it and asked, “What’s wrong, honey?” The vulture didn’t flinch; it just rolled its eye at me. Gently, I gathered the big bird into my arms and it rode home on my lap. It was starving and covered with louseflies, but not a bone was broken. It hadn't been hit by a car--there were no injuries anywhere. Oddly, the bird ignored the food I laid out for it, but would eagerly eat chicken livers and stew beef from my hand. We drove it to the Ohio Wildlife Center, the smell of vulture vomit rich in the van, and even they couldn’t find anything wrong with it, other than emaciation and parasites. After an uneventful recovery, it was released to fly again. I have no explanation for its behavior other than that it knew it needed help, and waited by the roadside for someone to stop. I’m glad that person was me.

I have been collecting stories like this for years. I’ve got more from my friend Christine Carpenter in Pennsylvania, about three wild cottontail rabbits, badly infested with warble fly larvae, that allowed her to help them. Warble flies lay their eggs on rabbits, and large maggots make huge, painful lumps under the skin of cottontails. The animals lose condition quickly. Christine found the first rabbit lying, seemingly near death, under a cherry tree. She took it in, and with her husband, Dan Nageotte, helping her hold it, removed the larvae. They left it lying on towels in the bathtub for the night, fully expecting to find it dead in the morning. Instead, it was strong and wild and they caught it and released it immediately. Over the next week, two more wild rabbits, similarly infested, approached Christine and allowed her husband to hold them so she could cut the larvae out of their skins. What would make wild rabbits approach a person? Misery, apparently. And, the possibility, I’d submit, of an understanding of their good intent, transmitted somehow by the rabbit that had been rescued. More on that later.

Snowy owls have lived to age 28 in captivity, and there’s no reason to assume they couldn’t live at least that long in the wild. Longevity is directly related to intelligence in birds and many other creatures. We are in the earliest stages of finding out what snowy owls are all about, thanks to the astounding geotransmitter tracking studies of Project SNOWstorm, which was opportunistically launched during the last huge owl irruption in 2013-2014. Solar-powered transmitters in small, 40 gm. backpacks fitted onto owls collect information on latitude, longitude, flight speed and air temperature. While the owls spend most of their lives out of cell signal range, the transmitters can store months or even years of information, which will all download when the bird next flies into range of a cell tower.

Project SNOWstorm’s findings are profound; they are new; they are extraordinarily detailed, and through them we’re learning things about snowy owls that we could find out in no other way. Long thought to be diurnal, I suppose because they perch in the open where we can see them sleeping, snowy owls are now known to come alive at dusk and hunt all night. They transform from slit-eyed sleepy lumps to ferocious talon launchers of death. Some snowy owls winter on the Great Lakes ice for weeks or months at a time, feeding on sea ducks, geese, grebes and gulls—even hapless herons! Check out Project SNOWstorm's latest blogpost about that here. The project has documented snowy owls flying out to hunt on the open ocean, perching on ice floes, channel markers and buoys. I’m having to rein in my use of exclamation points here.
photo by Bruce Wunderlich of the Holmes Co. OH owl, Dec. 2017
 Thanks to Project SNOWstorm's geotransmitters, we can see where individual owls go to nest, and the type and frequency of movements they make while tending eggs and young. More than 50 individual owls have been tagged, at a cost of around $3,000 per backpack, which sounds terribly expensive, but oh! the things we’re finding out about snowy owls! I can’t think of a more elegant and unobtrusive way to learn about a bird than to follow its every movement throughout its life. Compare that cost to that of the space program, and it’s a pittance for what we’re learning about the world’s most magnificent owl. One of the sad things we’ve learned is that estimates for their total population, once put at 300,000, based on the estimated carrying capacity of available habitat, were off by an order of ten. We now believe that no more than 30,000 snowy owls exist on earth. They’re on the IUCN Red List now, and are completely gone as breeders from Greenland. Nobody’s sure why, but the gaunt forms of starving polar bears toll a mournful bell that all is not well in the Arctic. And each snowy owl is even more precious now.

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

What I’m getting at, in a roundabout way, is that our knowledge of snowy owls is so very rudimentary. We’re learning a great deal now about what they do, but what do we know about what they think and feel? It’s clear that there is a lot more going on with snowy owls (and, to name two, rabbits and turkey vultures) than we could have ever suspected. The owls’ individual differences in movements (some are homebodies; others travel more than 2,000 miles in a year); their individual predilections for certain types of prey, from voles to gulls to geese; their endlessly varied and creative use of habitat, from hunting rodents in cornfields to taking sleeping ducks at night from a bobbing buoy on the open sea, all point to a long-lived, resourceful, individualistic and highly intelligent creature.
Photo by Bruce Wunderlich of the Holmes Co. OH owl, Dec. 2017
In my next post, I'll expand on these thoughts as they apply to the Vienna snowy owl. I hesitated to go see it, because I knew I'd get involved. I couldn't have known how deeply involved. But I'm grateful to this bird for opening some doors in my head, doors that open into his. 

Many, many thanks to my story donors, Charlie Kennedy of the Alabama Ornithological Society and Christine Carpenter, animal savant par excellence. This post is dedicated to the memory of Dan Nageotte. 


Your posts are always so fascinating and educational. Thank you for sharing all this information. This owl is magnificent and hopefully will get well. I recently read an article that said trees have communities. That any life form has the intuitive ability to seek assistance isn't at all far-fetched to me. Fortunately, there are wonderful people like you in this world.

I completely agree that animals ask us for help, and that animals are gifted with minds and consciousness in addition to their many gifts of the senses that we lost long ago, if we ever had. Mythology considers visitations by white animals as especially meaningful and magical. What a glorious and magnificent creature is the snowy owl, and I love this story for its hopefulness and evidence of an enduring connection between humans and our relations, despite all. Thank you.

Thank you for the dedication to my parents and the memory of my dad (Jenna Nageotte)

I agree that other animals communicate with human animals. There are times when I think I would prefer the company of non-human animals only.
I greatly admire people who have made it their life's work to understand all animals, or a particular animal.
The world would be richer, sweeter, safer, better if we all took note of and held other animals in great regard.
I'd better stop now, as my thoughts turn to darker things too quickly these days.
Thanks for a ray of brightness.
(p.s. I looked up Dan Nageotte, to whom you dedicated your post.)

@tracysamuels, thank you for the beautiful story. This is exactly what I so hoped would happen when I posted this. That more people like you would share your stories. And I'll also welcome people who disagree with my notions. Because sometimes they teach, too, about the stubbornness with which we hold to our fondest belief: that humans have somehow cornered the market on cognition, emotion, and intent. Which we most assuredly have not.

Can any lifelong animal-lover honestly deny the intelligence and consciousness of the wild creatures with whom we share our planet? Not me! According to the Bible, they were created by the same God as us, and humans weren't given permission to EAT them until after the great flood! Think of the communion humans and animals may have enjoyed until then, and the communion I look so forward to in the earth made new! There are a whole lotta humans who wouldn't be happy there, so God won't torture them by letting them live there. ;-)

Thank you, Julie, and also all the commentors here. This is such a beautiful exposition of the truth of our world.

I look forward to that kind of communion, too!


I have been following along with the rest to see how that beautiful was doing and am so happy he seems to be doing so well. I live in Canada and this morning this appeared in our National news. I thought you might be interested to see it.

My sweet husband has told me that as humans, we are naturally curious. And when we stop being curious, we stop learning. When we stop learning, we are dead. I always have believed that when working with the children in my wildlife programs at Oxley Nature Center, if they bring me an acorn, and I have seen many, it is the first and only acorn in the world. It is the most important discovery for that particular child. If we become used to, or numb to, just another acorn, or leaf, or animal, we have no business working with people. I remind myself to put a smile on your face and pretend I am a sponge. Soak up all the information, excitement, and curiosity that I can. I learn something new everyday and sometimes it is from the youngest child or the wildest creature. I just have to stay open and ready.

@Ramona Jackson, this is great. I share your practice. If either of my kids asked me to come outside to see something they'd found, I would drop everything as if it were the most important discovery of all time. Because it was. If they were excited about something in nature, the very least I could do was show my enthusiasm for their find. It worked!! THank you for this good story.

My cousin was a devoted bird rehabber for many years in the Florida Keys. Once in awhile an injured bird would present itself to her at her home, often near her pond and often during migration. I remember her expressing a sense of wonder about them knowing where to show up. That always stuck with me. I'm totally open to your way of thinking. Kim in PA

I think that we all -- humans as well as other animals -- started out communicating telepathically. But when humans started using speech to communicate, I think our reliance on it pushed telepathy into the background. Other animals, I am sure, use it still to communicate with each other. If they do this, then undoubtedly they can also "read" us.

Posted by Anonymous January 3, 2018 at 5:14 PM

Those owls are so beautiful. I have heard a teller and game warden, a deaf teller who signed his stories, tell of a mother deer asking for help. She approached him repeatedly, ran a bit, looked over her shoulder, waited--seemed to be asking him to follow. When he did he found her fawn down an old post hole. He lifted it out, it ran to its mother, the deer gave him one more look and they disappeared. He said it was like she knew she couldn't get it out and got help.

This was posted by Tracy Samuels, but never made it to the blog.Not sure why. Here's her comment from Jan. 3: As a wildlife rehabber we are conditioned to not “ anthropomorphize” the wildlife we work with. But oh I defy anyone who has spent time with animals, wild or domestic, to not look in their hearts and realize the soul of these animals sometimes call out to us!
I had a barred owl in our clinic. He had been there for a long time recovering from head trauma. The owl was blind and had to be hand fed. I knew as I was holding this beautiful bird that he was trying very hard to communicate with me. He was trying so hard to tell me something. I asked a fellow rehabber, who was known for her ability to communicate with some of the animals. After spending time alone with the owl she came out of the room wiping the tears from her eyes. “ He wants to go, he wants us to release him from this and let him go,,, he wants to die”. I was very lucky to be working with a vet who listened to us and when we told her he was tired and wanted to go she agreed and he was euthanized that night. Sometimes the best gift you can give them is to listen to them and let them go. They all have something to share with us if only we listen.

There aren’t a lot of religious writings that touch me much, but this post does remind me of the stories of St. Francis that I love.
And like you “I don’t care” how “preposterous” some find such notions of communion or relationships with animals. Many accept such closeness and indefinable communication with pets, yet find it less conceivable with wild animals. As you say, our “knowledge” is “rudimentary," and I'd add that ornithology, like many sciences, typically yields a false sense of knowing, when we have barely scratched the surface.

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