Strength restored, snowy owl flies north

Wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson of Quinnesec sends Skadi — a female snowy owl — back into nature Friday, five days after capturing the weakened bird to keep it out of traffic and boost its weight.

In 30-plus years as a wildlife rehabilitator, Phyllis Carlson has had only three snowy owls.

One was in such rough shape it died before she got it to her Quinnesec home. Another, a male, was so emaciated she set it up in her office rather than one of the outdoor cages. It would watch her, curious, as she worked. Snowy owls usually have little past interaction with humans — some young birds may never have seen a person on their nesting grounds in the arctic — so often show little fear.

That owl, which she dubbed Uller after the Norse god of winter and the hunt, did survive to be released. It was a success story she’d feared she’d not get to repeat — until this past week.

Carlson on Sunday took in a female snowy owl that had been “getting herself into some risky situations” in Norway, including coming dangerously close to traffic.

Most snowy owls that venture south in winter are young birds, hatchlings from the previous summer. When lemmings and other prey are abundant, snowy owls take advantage by upping the number of nestlings they raise, generating a wave of youngsters that strain local resources, leading them to disperse to find better hunting grounds.

Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photos

Snowy owls normally are the heaviest of their kind in North America. But when these birds arrive here, they’ve flown a long way from the tundra, using up whatever reserves they might have from summer. They’re often thin, desperate to find food yet still developing their hunting skills in unfamiliar settings. A number of these young owls won’t be around to make the trip back north. Of the four snowy owl calls the Chocolay Raptor Center received this winter, three were dead by the time they arrived, Carlson said.

This young snowy — recognizable as a female by the heavy black markings on the white background — was underweight but not badly so and could obviously hunt, as she was clinging to a rabbit that made her easier to capture, Carlson said. The owl got to finish the rabbit once set up in a cage at Carlson’s home, with the goal of boosting her weight before letting her go back into the wild.

You’d think after five days of being tossed chipmunks — which she’d swallow whole, in about four gulps — and rats that took no effort to catch, the snowy owl might come to appreciate Carlson. But this girl wasn’t looking to make nice, chattering and clacking its bill when Carlson approached and fighting against being handled. The initial capture might have been enough to convince the bird humans should be avoided, no matter what other benefits they might bring, Carlson speculated.

Which was just fine by Carlson: the owl came into her care because it was hanging around in yards and near roads. If this makes it steer clear of human activity, it may avoid being struck by a vehicle or encountering some other hazard.

Skadi, named for the Norse goddess of winter and the hunt, was set free Friday in the Quinnesec cemetery, a place close enough to Carlson’s home that if something still seemed amiss the bird could perhaps be recaptured.

But there was no looking back for Skadi — she flew away strongly and “kept going and going and going until I couldn’t see her anymore,” Carlson said. She headed in the right direction, too: north.

A number of snowy owls annually take up residence along the Great Lakes, where it’s thought they prowl the ice and shorelines for waterfowl that also come south for the winter. So hopefully Skadi will find a safer setting to make it through the season.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.


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