The snowy owl, a visitor from the tundra, had survived for more than a week with a broken wing before it was found on a rural road in Cattaraugus County.
Emaciated and sick, it may not have lived much longer, had not a farmer flagged down two state Department of Conservation officers who happened to be driving through the Town of Napoli the week before Christmas. They were able to capture the owl, and then two bird rehabilitators and a veterinarian went to work. Already, the bird has shown it has strength and a will to live.
Eventually, the owl may be returned to the wild. But that will be a while yet.
Snowy owls are not usually seen in Western New York, but this guy is in for an extended stay.
When conservation officers approached the injured bird in the field in Little Valley, it ran and flew short distances. They finally chased it down near a stream.
“It was trying to get away from the farmer, who was trying to keep traffic from hitting it,” said Environmental Conservation Officer Darci Dougherty.
The owl was able to fly two to three feet above the ground, going about 15 feet at a time, she said. It crossed one road, and she stayed between the owl and a stream, while her partner threw a coat over the bird.
“It was the right place at the right time,” she said of their rescue. “We gave him a chance he didn’t have.”
Dougherty called her supervisor, who contacted Marianne Hites, a wildlife rehabilitator with Messinger Woods Wildlife Care and Education Center who has the expertise, and the federal permit, to rehab migratory birds.
Hites picked him up from DEC officers in Cattaraugus County, who had placed him in a box. She detected an odor coming from the box that indicated the wound was infected. She speculated he had been struck by a car at least a week before he was found.
“He was emaciated. He more or less had three strikes,” Hites said.
But then she added, “We couldn’t not try this.”
“This” was surgery and intensive rehabilitative care. The bird’s major and minor metacarpals – bones in the wing – were broken, and the bone had become infected. Blood tests revealed the owl was severely compromised, with severe dehydration and kidney failure, and he needed to be stabilized for several days before surgery to insert pins into his right wing.
He weighed about 2 pounds, compared to the average adult weight of 3.5 to 6.5 pounds. The experts’ best guess is that he is about a year old.
Care of the bird includes giving him extra fluids, through a tube down his throat, and antibiotics. And although he was sick, he was strong.
Judy Seiler, another wildlife rehabilitator and president of Messinger Woods, said she has cared for great horned owls and eagles, and can insert a feeding tube down their throats by herself. But with this owl, two people were needed, and she used two hands to open his beak.
“We’ve got strong birds around here, but this guy had them beat,” she said.
Born in the arctic tundra, snowy owls may travel through Western New York during the winter in search of food. A large, stately white bird with brown bars among the white feathers, this owl has bright yellow eyes, black beak and strong talons.
“In a typical winter, there may be a handful of snowy owls that are reported around. The Buffalo waterfront is a good location,” said Chuck Rosenburg, an ecologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, who said they also can be found in inland grassy areas.
He said there was an influx of snowy owls in Western New York during the 2013-14 winter, with several sightings. By March, most are headed back to the tundra, although a few may be seen in April, Rosenburg said.
“They’re not quite the largest owl by wing span, but they are the heaviest of the North American owls,” he said. “It’s a heavy duty bird.”
The owl is spending his days in a small canvas carrier at Hites’ house, so he won’t reinjure himself. And since surgery by Dr. Laura Wade in December, he has been making about two trips a week for checkups to Specialized Care for Avian and Exotic Pets to change his dressing, which covers his exposed bone. He still is at risk for aspergillosis, a fungus that can be deadly in birds with compromised immune systems.
The owl’s appetite has returned, and he is eating mice she orders frozen online.
When he recovers more, she will let him outside. The goal is to release him. But no one knows if that will be possible.
“Till those pins come out we’re not going to know if this bird can fly,” Hites said. “This is still a very guarded prognosis.”