Saturday was a typical day at home for this writer, mom and veterinarian; filled with laundry, preparing my next batch of query letters, cleaning out the spare room for my teenage son to move downstairs, and… rescuing a Snowy Owl.
Yes, that’s right. A Snowy Owl rescue.
As I’m folding laundry–questioning if even half the clothing was actually worn or only scraped off my kid’s floor–my phone rings.
“Hello?” I answer.
and then the cringe worthy words, “Hey, Donna, I’m sorry to bother you on a Saturday…”
I’m not even half way into my first cup of coffee, but some calls I don’t mind answering, even on a Saturday.
Friends of ours, while out biking and running together in Grey-Bruce, came across an injured Snowy Owl and wondering what to do, they called. As a rural veterinarian, I’m not ashamed to admit we do our best to discourage calls to treat wild and exotic animals. We don’t see enough iguana’s or parrots to get good at treating them and frankly, we’re not licensed to treat wild animals. For wildlife, I keep emergency numbers on speed dial; the Ministry of Natural Resources, Rabies Response contacts, and Authorized Wildlife Custodians.
At the Hanover Veterinary Hospital, I work with amazing, energetic and dedicated veterinarians who have a passion for wildlife and zoo animals and as a team, we were able to set into action, Mission: Rescue Hedwig.
Our good Samaritan’s who found the Snowy Owl, were kind enough to abandon their long distance run/bike, to keep our feathered friend in their sites. They presumed the bird had a broken wing, or similar injury, as the owl was unable to fly.
I contacted Hobbitstee Wildlife Refuge and our vet clinic agreed to take custody of the Snowy Owl and transport the bird to them for care, as long as the injuries could be treated so they could return the bird to the wild. If a wild bird sustains a catastrophic fracture, one that is complicated or too close to the joint, or if a fracture is open to infection, or if trying to help, even with the best of intentions, is inhumane, then other options would need to be discussed.
Armed with a large locking lid Tupperware, a thick towel and a blanket, my daughter and I followed the detailed directions of our friends to find them parked along the road near a stream and scrub bush bordering a cover-cropped field. They pointed to where a large white owl sat on the ground… watching our activity.
The bird could hop and run along, quite well. It took some persistent and steady herding to get close. It was obvious by the fact the bird had yet to fly away, and the way it’s ineffectual wing couldn’t capture the wind, that there must be an injury.
“Mom,” my daughter whispered from the other side of the bird, “do you remember what I had on my Christmas wish list two years ago?”
“No.” I tried to lower my heart rate, as the owl’s head swiveled and round, yellow eyes took my measure.
“A snowy owl. Can I keep it?”
I chuckled. This must have been during her Harry Potter phase. If only this bird were carrying an invitation to Hogwarts and I could wave my magic wand to make everything better.
With a towel and a blanket, we were able to surround and cover the owl. The Refuge had been very helpful in providing clear directions. Thankfully, Snowy Owls have little contact with humans, so normally, our presence is enough to confuse them. They have two main weapons, the beak and the talons (long, dagger toe nails). My job was to immobilize the bird, keeping her wings tucked in, and avoiding the beak and talons, to place her into the box. Easy, right?
Although my hands were trembling, it was pretty easy.
Moments after being placed into the box, our feathered friend wiggled up from under the blankets.
I couldn’t help snapping a picture and sending it with a quick text to our Harry Potter fanatic veterinarian, who has a keen interest in zoo medicine.
‘Transporting Hedwig to you now.’
On the trip to the veterinary hospital, my daughter kept saying, “Wow, so cool, he can practically turn his head right around!”
I’m not sure how my daughter didn’t pick up this well-known-fact from childhood cartoons and books, but granted, it is much cooler to watch an Owl turn their head almost fully around in real life. Thankfully, the bird did not escape the box on the way to the practice.
At the veterinary clinic, I texted an update with a photo to the Refuge. Their response made me smile. ‘Gorgeous girl!‘
Hmmmm. A girl. Who knew? Could this actually be Hedwig? In J.K. Rowling’s novel, Harry Potter, Harry’s Owl, Hedwig, is a girl. Although, in the movies, Hedwig was mostly played by boy owls. Random fact there for you.
By the time we got our Snowy Owl back to the veterinary hospital, she appeared oddly dirtier. (see the new speckles on her previously white feathers?) But it wasn’t dirt.
A quick inquiry to the refuge brought this response, ‘Oh, ya, lice. Very common in all birds of prey.‘
Alright, two concerns here; #1, I was going to need to get close and personal with this lice ridden bird in order to examine her wing and #2, BIRD OF PREY! I’d almost forgotten, this is a bird who could quite reasonably scratch out my eye. Great.
With the help of two skilled and savvy veterinarians from our practice, we devised a plan to safely immobilize the Owl’s weapons in order to examine the injured wing. I’m a chicken farmer, so thankfully, I’m pretty good at holding chicken legs. This couldn’t be much different, right?
We got Hedwig, as she was now called in my head, with her legs and long talons, held between the fingers of my one hand, while I kept control of her head in my other hand.
Her toes stretched, so at times her talons wrapped fully around my finger, but on the whole she was as gentle with us, as we were careful to be with her. With a towel over her head to keep her quiet, my associate stretched out and examined each wing carefully. Thankfully there were no open wounds, no decaying flesh and our owl was alert and appeared otherwise healthy.
We took an x-ray of each wing, so we could compare the injured wing to the normal, as we frankly have very little experience assessing for fractures in birds and then we sent the radio-graphs off to the refuge.
We gave the owl an injection of pain medication, added additional breathing holes to the box and covered her up in a dark room to relax after what must have been a stressful experience. One of our veterinarians volunteered to transport Hedwig to the Wildlife Custodian for treatment and I went home to put my clothing through the laundry.
I had phantom itching all the way home… sure bird lice were crawling everywhere.
As I was leaving our veterinary hospital, located in a residential part of a busy town, right beside the local high school, I was met at the end our lane by a raccoon. Granted, it was a warm thawing day, the temperature atypically well above freezing, so I assume this critter awoke from his winter slumber, but I swear he smirked and waved as we drove past.
Then, stopped at a light as we were leaving town, and I KID YOU NOT, there was this car.
Alright, enough was enough. I shook my head and read the license plate again… I guess I will take this as Mother Natures way of saying, ‘Thank you’.
This adventure has been great fun, but we are still not licensed to practice veterinary medicine on wild animals, and although I’m a firm believer of ‘let nature be’, I’m glad we were able to help this special owl.
I have many things to thankful for;
- to have friends who are great enough to stop, to call, and to care for our wildlife.
- to have amazing associates, willing to give of their time and energy to help an animal in distress.
- to have organizations like Hobbitstee Wildlife Refuge to accept and care for these magnificent creatures.
- and to Hedwig, for not impaling me with her incredible talons.
Please see the Hobbitstee Wildlife Refuge website for continued updates on this Snowy Owl. I understand she is doing very well and they hope for a full recovery.
NOTE: If there is an eleven year old girl or boy out there, practicing magic in hiding, waiting for their invitation to Hoggwarts, I hope your letter will be delivered shortly, as soon as Hedwig is released to the wild once again (as my daughter will not be keeping a Snowy Owl for Christmas).
This image is credited to a local Grey-Bruce photographer, Connie Miller.