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.

Human Journey

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)