March 15, 2018
Ontario, Opinions

Rescuers couldn’t save snowy owl

Jenna Hunnef, Special to Postmedia News, "Muddy pursuit doesn’t pay off", Tuesday, March 13, 2018,

The same week that left many Southern Ontario communities awash in floodwaters caused by days of heavy rainfall in February also brought a call to Salthaven about a snowy owl that was acting strangely in a field north of Strathroy.

It’s not unusual for us to receive calls from concerned individuals who are unfamiliar with the snowy owl’s hunting methods. While many large owl species, such as the great horned owl, typically hunt from trees, the snowy owl prefers to observe its surroundings at ground level, often sitting for hours in the same spot while using its extraordinary hearing and vision to locate potential prey. These owls make clever use of white space to conceal themselves, whether against the frozen backdrop of a treeless tundra or hunkered down on the white line painted across a highway. The snowy owl’s densely feathered feet have adapted to help it stay warm during the hours it spends crouched in the snow.

As a result of this unusual behaviour, many of the calls we receive about snowy owls are false alarms. Unfortunately, the call we received on Feb. 23 was not one of them. In addition to a significant wing droop – evidence of a likely injury – this snowy owl was making no attempt to use any white space to its advantage, seated in the middle of a dark brown field that was bloated with mud after a week of torrential downpours. Already unable to fly, the snowy owl was further incapacitated by a heavy coating of mud that had adhered to its finely feathered feet.

It became evident the moment our crew entered the field that the owl’s rescue was going to be difficult. Following its natural instincts, the owl moved away from its pursuers farther into the field toward a stream swollen by runoff from the recent rains. Unafraid, it swam to the other side. The rescuers’ boots quickly became caked with heavy, wet mud, but equally intrepid, they forded the stream after the owl. The pursuit finally reached its conclusion when the exhausted owl was cornered against a fence by its similarly exhausted rescuer. Together they made the long and arduous journey back across the stream and through the mud-covered field to the Salthaven Critter Cruiser.

We wish we could say that the difficulty of this rescue was rewarded by the owl’s speedy recovery, but circumstances do not always work out the way we would like. X-rays of the owl’s drooping wing revealed multiple fractures in its ulna and radius, the long bones of the forewing. At least two of the fractures were located near the elbow joint, which meant that this majestic bird would never fly again, and so we made the difficult decision to free it from its pain through humane euthanization.

We cannot be sure how this snowy owl sustained its devastating injuries, but a likely culprit might be gleaned from the proximity of the field in which it was found to a major highway roaring with traffic, and a nearby wind farm bristling with turbines.

As the catastrophic flooding in late February reminds us, all life on this planet is subject to the mercy of nature. As human beings, we have the power to be merciful in our own way, which includes being aware of the negative effects our civilizations can have on the world’s animal populations and taking whatever steps necessary – however mud-choked or onerous they may be – toward building a more equitable and humane climate for all.

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