PULLMAN, Wash. – A snowy owl that flew thousands of miles from its home only to collide with a car west of Spokane, Wash., is being treated at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. His presence here is part of a phenomenon nationwide unlike anything ever recorded, according to a world-renowned snowy owl expert.
With hand-fed meals, a bowl of ice and a fan to keep him cool, and a flock of caretakers who call him Tundra, this Arctic visitor just might call the Palouse his new home.
Winding road to WSU
Tundra and Washington Fish and Wildlife
Officer Curt Wood after he rescued the
injured bird near Davenport on the day
after Thanksgiving. (Photo courtesy
of Curt Wood)
How Tundra the snowy owl got from a roadside near the town of Davenport and into the capable hands of WSU veterinarian Nickol Finch is a story in itself. It begins the day after Thanksgiving with Washington Fish and Wildlife Officer Curt Wood.
Responding to a report of an owl “hopping on the ground” next to a road, Wood found the bird struggling to fly and put on a pair of heavy duty gloves to handle it. But the gloves weren’t long enough, he said. Fortunately for Wood, “my cuff and wristwatch band stopped his talons from going in.”
Wood saw that the owl’s wing was broken. Knowing it would die in the wild, he considered killing it, he said. But then something happened to change his mind.
“The owl was very beautiful, and it just looked at me with those big yellow eyes, blinking them from time to time,” he said. “It seemed to be totally at ease with me, as if it knew that I was going to save it, so I didn’t have the heart to put it down.”
Wood returned to his truck, placed the injured bird on his lap and drove to his house to retrieve a carrier box. During the 10 minute drive, the owl was “just like a dog taking a nap, and it blinked its large yellow eyes at me as though totally content,” he said.
After getting the owl inside a carrier, Wood drove it 20 miles to Medical Lake, where he handed it off to another state wildlife official who drove it another 15 miles to the Ponti Veterinary Hospital in the Spokane area.
After the owl was examined, “its injuries were fairly involved so Dr. Ponti contacted me to see what I could do,” said Finch, who oversees WSU’s Raptor Rehabilitation Center.
But how to get the owl another 90 miles to WSU? Finch’s husband happened to be near Spokane on business.
“I called him and said, ‘Please, pick up this bird,’” said Finch. “So he did. He brought it to me in a cat carrier.”
Finch diagnosed the bird with a broken wing and dislocated elbow, meaning that he won’t fly again. She placed him on antibiotics and anti-inflammatories and arranged for him to be hand-fed.
And then, she named him Tundra.
Woods, the wildlife officer, was right. Tundra is strikingly beautiful and surprisingly calm. Observant yellow eyes peer from a round face so feathery that it appears covered with white fur.
“Tundra is special. Our raptor club students love taking care of him,” said Finch.
Rooming with a dragon
Tundra, who flew here from the Arctic, is
wielding magic at WSU. (Photo by Linda
Weiford, WSU News)
Because Tundra is being treated in the veterinary hospital’s ward for wildlife and exotic animals, his neighbors include a giant bearded dragon and a lime green Amazon parrot.
How to accommodate critters who need warmth to survive, when Tundra needs cold? Finch keeps the room temperature toasty but with a fan aimed on Tundra. Inside his Plexiglas cage she placed a large bowl kept stocked with fresh ice.
“He’s always standing in it, with his feathers ruffling in the breeze from the fan,” she said.
Harry Potter owls ‘everywhere’
Since November, snowy owls the same bird made famous as a young wizard’s companion in the Harry Potter series – have been seen perched on fence posts, roosting atop chimneys, assembled in fields and even along beaches across the U.S., according to the National Audubon Society.
The reportings are unprecedented, said Denver Holt, a wildlife biologist who runs the nonprofit Owl Institute in Charlo, Mont. Holt, widely known for his annual field research on snowy owls in Burrow, Alaska, said it’s not unusual for snowies to migrate south, but not in such large numbers and not to so many places.
“The last time we saw an irruption (a sudden, significant increase) of snowy owls was in 2005-2006,” he said. “We might hear about a ton of them in the Northeast, but not everywhere, as what’s happening now.”
Unlike the mystical journeys of Harry Potter’s owl, nothing magical led Tundra here. Contrary to some media reports, snowy owls aren’t showing up because of a lemming rodent shortage in Alaska and Canada, said Holt. Instead, a population boom is forcing the youngsters out.
“We know the owls had a very high reproduction season,” he said. “My guess is that there are now so many of them that the juveniles are getting pushed south. Before long, they find themselves thousands of miles away in Washington, Nebraska and elsewhere.”
Here on the Palouse, Tundra will continue to wield his own kind of magic.
“He’s got those big yellow eyes and is gentle, as far as raptors go,” said Finch. “People find him captivating.”