This snowy owl was rescued by area birders March 16; sadly it died later on with the diagnosis of starvation. (Photo by Gary Erickson)
This snowy owl was rescued by area birders March 16; sadly it died later on with the diagnosis of starvation. (Photo by Gary Erickson)
Having spent a good share of last week birding the back roads of Fillmore County, we had pretty much decided to stay home and have a quiet day on our own acreage on Friday, March 16. No travels and no hassles - then the call came in. Before the hour was out, we were on our way to the Twin Cities with a snowy owl in the back seat of our car!

Norma Johnson, a neighbor of ours near Wykoff, called to say there was a light colored owl in the ditch near their home. It appeared to be injured and she wasn't sure what kind it was. She knew that we were birders and thought we might want to check it out. We are so thankful to Norma for making that call. We grabbed our cameras, binoculars, cell phone, and sped out the door.

The bird was a beautiful snowy owl. He was sitting in the ditch, and Norma's husband, Richard, was there watching it. He could hop awkwardly, but didn't seem to be able to fly. We watched him for a few minutes and then decided to call Karla at the Houston Nature Center, as they specialize in owls. We were hoping they would send someone up to assess and perhaps capture the injured bird.

Karla suggested time was of the essence and asked if we would like to attempt the capture. She gave us careful instructions, but we were nervous and hesitant. We didn't want to hurt the bird, and we didn't want the bird to hurt us with its sharp talons and biting beak. Luckily, our good friend Ray, another birder, answered our call and was there to help. The two men carefully captured the owl by covering first his head (so he wouldn't panic) and then his body with a blanket. He was gently scooped up and placed in a covered laundry basket made into a makeshift carrier. Off we sped to Quarry Hill Nature Center, where we thought we would be leaving the snowy owl for rehabilitation.

Surprise. At Quarry Hill a quick assessment was done and it was decided that the snowy needed to be transported to the Raptor Rehabilitation Center at the U of M in St. Paul. They asked if we would want to do this. After quick consultation, the bird was gently placed in a better carrier and away we went to St. Paul. All this time the snowy owl was sitting quietly and peacefully in the carrier with its head up and eyes clear. We were hopeful!

We arrived at the Raptor Center about four hours after Norma made that call. A sign on the door said "closed." However, they knew we were coming and opened the door and let us in. The bird was still calm and alert. He was quickly taken from us and we were left with a code number, which we could use to call and check on him.

Halfway home we got a call from the Raptor Center. The news was discouraging though not hopeless. They felt the owl was a victim of starvation. This is fairly common for young snowy owls who come this far south. The Raptor Center told us this condition was hard to reverse, but they would try. They suggested we call in about three days to see if he made it.

The grim prognosis brought us all back to a question we had asked before we made the capture and transported the owl for help. Each of us wondered what was the right thing to do. Should we leave him in the natural world and let nature take its course? Or should we transport him into an unnatural environment with the hope of survival? Left in the ditch, he would die for certain, a victim of weather, animal attack, starvation or dehydration. Taken to the center, at least he had a chance. In the end, he was a beautiful, magnificent bird who needed a chance to live. We did what seemed right at the time.

We waited almost a week to get the call from the Raptor Center. Finally that call came on March 22, and it was not good news. The Snowy Owl had not survived. They told us it was a juvenile male and he had indeed starved to death as they initially suspected. To paraphrase the information they gave us: The Snowy Owl's natural food source is tundra lemmings and the owls seem to have difficulty recognizing the rodents of Minnesota as a food source.

Sometimes in spite of our best intentions, life doesn't work out. But one must try.

More Nature Notes in a few weeks. Visit our website at fillmorenature.blogspot.com for more pictures and news of what is going on in our natural world.