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Injured snowy owl recovers – and returns to wild

Feisty until he was set free, the snowy owl found near death two months ago had no problem catching the wind -- and soaring above the Lake Erie plain -- when he was released into the wild late Wednesday afternoon.

He had been discovered sick and emaciated, with a broken wing, in rural Cattaraugus County on Dec. 20.

[Gallery: The snowy owl gets released]

A farmer had flagged down two state Department of Conservation officers who happened to be driving down the road. One of those officers, Darci Dougherty, was there to see the owl fly away.

"I kind of wanted to see it through to the end," she said. The last time she saw the owl, he was struggling to fly just a few feet.

"That was good to see him fly," Dougherty said.

After the bird was found, the conservation officers transferred it to Marianne Hites, a wildlife rehabilitator with Messinger Woods Wildlife Care and Education Center, launching an intensive rehab of the bird that culminated in his release two months after he was found.

Veterinarians at Specialized Care for Avian & Exotic Pets, in Clarence, did not think the bird would survive. But they saw him for checkups at least twice a week, and gave credit to Hites for his survival.

"We were pretty paranoid at first," said Dr. Richard Burdeaux, who performed surgery on the bird.

The snowy owl was not happy about the whole process before release. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

About a dozen people, some from the Messinger Woods and Project SNOWstorm, some from the DEC, and the press gathered on a rural road in Wilson for the release. Hites arrived with the owl in a red canvas crate in the back of her SUV, and took him out so he could be banded with an aluminum link with a number on it.

"He's very confrontational," Hites said, before she got him out of the crate and handed him to David Genesky of Project SNOWstorm, a group that helps track Snowy owls in North America.

The owl pecked at the humans who were measuring him and putting a band on him. Genesky also put a stripe with a black marker on the back of his head. He said it would last about a month, and if anyone spotted him, they would know he had been banded recently.

Finally, it was time to let the owl go. Hites held on to him one more time, Dougherty to her left, and Burdeaux to her right.

"Behave, stay out of trouble," Hites told the owl. "Stay out of a lot of trouble."

She let go, and the owl flapped his wings and flew into the wind, then turned 180 degrees, flying about 500 yards until he found a large pile of sileage at farm, where he perched.

"His flight looked good," said Melissa Mance-Coniglio of Project SNOWstorm.

"I don't have a bit of worry about this bird," added David Genesky of the project.

A few snowy owls usually make their way from the tundra this far south every winter, according to Chuck Rosenburg, an ecologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. He said by March, or the first part of April, the owl should start its move up north to the tundra.

He was released in Wilson because that is one of the flight paths of the migrating birds.

"I'm hoping it kind of acclimates to a good area with a lot of prey available, and improves its flight capabilities and foraging abilities," Rosenburg said.

The band from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is used to track movement and longevity of birds. If the owl is found again, either dead or alive, the number on the band can be traced back to him, Rosenburg said.

The owl’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. It is believed he had been struck by a car about a week before he was found.

Hites fed him antibiotics and other medicine, and made sure he got enough fluids.

Eventually, he began eating five extra large mice a day, gaining about 1.5 pounds.

Snowy owls are not the largest owls, but they are the heaviest, Rosenburg said. This owl weighed about 3.5 pounds.

"This is the fun part of what we do," said Judy Seiler, president of Messinger Woods said after the owl flew away. "It reinforces what we do."

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