How an Injured Snowy Owl Got New Feathers

Washington, D.C.‘s visiting snowy owl has had a rough couple of months, but the bird is now getting a full makeover—including some shiny new feathers.

The two-year-old bird was first spotted in the nation’s capital in late January, and was reportedly hit by a bus shortly thereafter.

Snowy owls are arctic dwellers that usually don’t make it that far south. But this winter marked possibly the largest migration of these birds to the southeastern U.S. in two decades, an influx linked to a boom in lemmings, the owls’ main prey. (Related: “What a Hoot: Snowy Owls Make Rare Southern Appearance.“)

At some point the Beltway bird also singed its flight feathers—likely as it took off from a heat-blasting city chimney. Burned feathers don’t function properly, making it difficult or impossible for a bird to fly.

So the owl is now in rehab at the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, where, using a procedure called “imping”—an old falconers’ term that’s short for “implanting”—an avian expert has replaced the useless feathers with leftover ones taken from other birds. (Except for some damage to the upper beak, any injuries from the bus collision, including a broken toe, had healed before the bird arrived at the center.)

Fixing Feathers

Avian physiologist Lori Arent, who manages the center’s clinic, crafted temporary replacements for the bird using ten flight feathers—five for each wing—and eight tail feathers harvested from previous snowy owl patients.

While some reported the owl was a female, Arent said the whiter plumage and smaller body size suggest a male bird. “I have a whole freezer full of harvested feathers, of different types and sizes, and I wanted to choose the right ones for this animal. I picked feathers from a male the same age as this bird and they fit perfectly.” (Arent didn’t probe the bird to confirm its sex, which would have added more stress to an already stressful experience.)

She then whittled small sticks of bamboo so that one end poked into the shaft of the new feather and the other into the shaft still attached to the bird (where the burned feathers had been carefully sheared off).

With a little drop of quick-drying epoxy, she cemented each new feather into place. “If attached right, the new feathers are just as effective as the old ones” in letting a bird do all of its aerial maneuvers, she said. (See National Geographic’s pictures of birds of prey.)

Eventually, the owl will lose the borrowed feathers—in a process called molting—and grow its own new ones.

Excellent Prognosis

Though a grounded owl loses its strength quickly, this one’s prognosis is excellent. The Raptor Center’s staff will exercise the bird (attached to a tether) and will watch its wing and leg positions, flapping, and other markers that indicate if parts are working properly.

The D.C. owl, the sixth snowy owl to come to the center during this past fall and winter season, is housed with a female already in treatment there, and the two get along fine. Arent said that pairing them up helps keep the birds calm.

Once deemed fit, hopefully within a month, the owl will be released either in northern Minnesota or somewhere on the northern East Coast.

The owl was in-clinic yesterday afternoon having damaged wing feathers replaced through a process known as imping. Photography courtesy of the Raptor Center, University of Minnesota

Urban Jungle

This bird’s series of unfortunate events tell a bigger story—one of how wild animals can struggle in a human-dominated world, Arent added.

“Local populations of raptors grow up with all these challenges, but birds that are visitors to strange lands aren’t used to contending with vehicles and buildings,” she said. “They come looking for food and get into trouble.” (Related: “Homesick Owls Confusing Airports With Arctic Tundra.”)

The Raptor Center treats some 900 injured raptors every year, mostly red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, and bald eagles, which often come in poisoned from eating prey killed with lead bullets. Vehicle collisions cause the most injuries overall.

Saving a single bird doesn’t help a population, of course, but “people care about owls and other raptors, so it’s worth doing what we’re doing to help this one,” she said.

For us wingless humans, “raptors really do have their own type of magic.”

Follow Jennifer Holland on Twitter.

Degrees in English and Conservation Biology Contributing Writer, National Geographic magazine Regular Contributor, NG News Author of bestselling books Unlikely Friendships (2011) and Unlikely Loves (2013)
  • Emma

    Oh I love Owls! It’s really amazing that they can replace feathers that have been damaged like this. I hope the Owl continues to do well

  • Dwayne LaGrou

    You deserve a big pat on the back for your hard work helping these lost visitors. We in the”Thumb Area” of Michigan have also seen a larger number of birds that are usually not seen as much, Like the Snowy Owl. They are beautiful birds for sure. We have a pair of Bald Eagles that have a nest near by that is huge, about 6-7 feet across that people have been watching for the past few years. It is so interesting to watch them swoop down across the lake and pluck a fish out while flying by. Their sight must be incredible to manage such a feat.
    Keep up the good work, And Thanks to Nat Geo for the story.

  • Ima Ryma

    This snowy owl left the arctic,
    Flew south to follow lemmings’ trail.
    As food, they are my fav’rite pick.
    In D.C. I landed my tail
    On a building’s hot chimney top,
    Burned my feathers, fell to the street,
    A bus drove by – gave me a pop,
    Looked like I would be bird mincemeat.
    But then some humans rescued me,
    Implanted hand me down feathers,
    Fixed all my other injury.
    Soon, I’ll be fit for the weathers.

    In D.C,, since being hurt there,
    I signed up for Obamacare.

  • L. Corsiglia

    Thanks for this excellent story, and for highlighting the practice of wildlife rehabilitation. I wanted to address the point the article makes at the end: “saving a single bird doesn’t help the population, of course, but “people care about owls…” I think it is important to see wild animals as autonomous individuals, with their own agency and needs – and right to exist. Each one, like ourselves, is also part of a population. But we experience ourselves, and each other, primarily as individuals.
    Rescue, rehabilitation and release of a single injured animal is extremely meaningful to the individual concerned, his or her family, social group, etc. We’d be quite surprised to show up at the hospital with a broken leg only to be told: sorry, there are plenty of humans in the population… In short: wild animals need all the help they can get, from broadest (habitat preservation, etc.) to most specific (rescue from a bus collision and a new set of flight feathers). Wildlife rehabilitators play an important role and make a real difference in wild lives.

  • Christine Dell’Amore

    I laughed out loud at the Obamacare part, Ima!

  • Charlie

    You cannot imp a feather that has been “pulled out”. When a feather is pulled out, it is torn out by the roots – this is called “plucking” and can’t be repaired. You have to carefully shear off a feather to imp it. Please correct the article!

    small sticks of bamboo so that one end poked into the shaft of the new feather and the other into the shaft still attached to the bird (where the burned feathers had been carefully pulled out).

    • Thank you for the correction! Indeed, my choice of word was incorrect. Appreciate your careful read.

  • Ebby Ebbey

    Real or illusion ?

  • James Carey

    Hi everyone. Great story, I run an owl sanctuary myself in the south of France and stories like this really make us happy. Great to see people doing there bit to ensure the survival of the local owl population. As we say at the sanctuary ‘ever owl counts’. Keep up the good work guys. 😀

  • Paula R

    Great story! Snowy owls have flown further south than usual this past winter- even here in Newfoundland.

  • Heidi Essex

    You should talk to Debbie Pappas, owner of Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation, Price UT. Debbie specializes in birds of prey and runs her facility from her house and has done so for many years. She is a non-profit and covers a large portion of central and eastern Utah. She constantly has several birds that are in her care and her work is non-stop, 24/7, 365 days a year. Many of the rescues are non-releasable back into the wild and Debbie needs to place these birds with other facilities across the country. Debbie had suffered a heart attack last summer and ended up having 2 or 3 surgeries and just recently has gone back to her work. It was with the devotion of her main volunteer, Connie, that Debbie’s facility was able to stay open and
    operating. The true story is what drives these women. They are truly heros.

  • klao


  • Mary

    Nice article; great to see someone helping these poor creatures.

  • donny

    cool article

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