January 1 2015. Burlington ON. This New year’s Day was not supposed to be a birding day, I had more pressing matters to deal with. But then things started happening and well…..
Top priority was fixing, or at very least investigating, a domestic plumbing problem that had caused considerable alarm. The details don’t matter, it’s just that I’d set aside the day to get to the root of the problem and either fix it if I could, or accept that it would probably be an expensive start to the year.
I was in the basement experimenting with various shut-off valves when the phone rang. It was the Owl Foundation asking me if I could drop what I was doing and ferry an injured owl to the TOF’s owl hospital some 60 Km distant. Well, what would you do?
Evidently New Year’s night was quiet enough that a provincial police officer found time to rescue this poor owl from the roadside and take it to our city’s animal control building. Animal Control duly called the Owl Foundation and the Owl Foundation then called me. Plumbing could wait, I collected and delivered the owl and briefly stayed to help and watch.
Removed from the covered cage, we found a two or three year old male Snowy Owl (in plumage rather like the one below). He looked more than a bit battered, his tail feathers and wing edges were quite ragged as if he’d dragged himself around for quite a while. The vet tech checked him over gently; collisions with cars or trucks often cause mortal damage to the head or wing-bone fractures. There were slight traces of blood in one ear but otherwise the head seemed okay. It was his left wing that shocked us. A large area of his primary and secondary flight feathers were badly burned away, leaving a huge semi-circular gap in his wing-spread, enough that rendered flightless he probably crash landed.
How this happened is anyone’s guess. But this is a heavily urbanized area and it seems plausible to me that he flew too low over a flame of some kind; perhaps the waste-gas flare that goes with sewage treatment plants or the chimney of some processing industry. Whatever the source, it’s more than a little alarming to think that what appears to be open skies is in fact dotted with such hideous traps.
We had full control of him as he was examined, given some rehydration and a bit of de-lousing. With heavily gloved hands, I held his densely feathered feet, each large, padded digit, or toe, was perhaps two centimeters long and armed with a thick black claw made for quick piercing kills.
I have examined many birds in the hand, I find all of them are unfailingly fascinating. This Snowy Owl was in some ways just another closely scrutinized bird, but if I have one lasting impression (actually I have too many to recount ) it would be his magnificently luminous eyes: framed within the pure white facial disk, each about a centimeter in diameter with intense chrome yellow irises around deep ink-black pupils.
If ever a small relatively unheralded organisation needed support it would be the Owl Foundation. Read more about it here and don’t feel embarrassed about sending it a financial donation.
Unless we missed other injuries or damage, his chances of a full recovery are fairly good. He could be released once new flight feathers grow in, this won’t be until summer starts to wane so he will be a captive bird for longer than anyone would wish. But when that time comes, a chain of volunteers will transport him as far north as possible and he’ll be set free with a reminder to watch out for chimneys next time.
And the plumbing problem? It turned out to be relatively benign, but dealing with it took up the rest of the day.