Seeing a rare bird isn't always a feather in a birdwatcher's cap.
Denise Lewis of Bellevue has seen two snowy owls — an Arctic bird with radiant white plumage — in Nebraska this month. She hopes that they are the last.
Lewis, outreach coordinator for Raptor Recovery Nebraska, retrieved an ailing, female snowy owl from the grounds of the Hilton Omaha downtown at midday Monday. The raptor is believed to be the same bird that perched on the back side of the CenturyLink Center Omaha, thrilling dozens of attendees during a regional dog show Friday.
Lewis said the owl was severely emaciated and dehydrated.
“She's in such bad shape that I can't feed her,” Lewis said. “She's full of parasites, mites and flies.”
Lewis said she would try to nurse the bird back to strength with electrolytes and vitamins for a few days before attempting to offer it solid food. If it survives, Lewis planned to take the owl to Raptor Recovery's center near Lincoln later this week.
The owl is about six months old and weighs less than 2 pounds. It should weigh 5 pounds, Lewis said.
“If they lose half their body weight, it's hard to turn them around,'' she said.
Snowy owls typically live in the Arctic and feed on lemmings. More than 100 sightings of the birds were recorded last winter in both Nebraska and Iowa. The owls have a 5-foot wingspan. Harry Potter's feathered friend Hedwig — in the popular book and movie series — was a snowy owl.
Lewis said she hopes that there isn't another eruption of snowy owl sightings this season.
“I understand that everyone likes to see them, get excited and think it's cool but, oh, it's not good. All I can think is, holy cow, here we go again,” Lewis said. “When we get them this far south, it's never a good thing.''
Snowy owls can't survive in the climate and habitat of the central plains. They probably wander this far south — about 1,000 miles from their home tundra — in search of food, Lewis said.
“There's no way in her emaciated state, that she could make it that far north again,” Lewis said.
Lewis started receiving calls Monday morning from people concerned about the owl. The bird was barely flying over traffic on South 10th Street between the CenturyLink Center and the Hilton. Hilton personnel put a box over the standing owl to capture it and notified Lewis.
Lewis said that capturing the owl safely with a box was the right thing to do because the bird obviously was ill and could have been injured. The bird was so weak that Lewis didn't need to wear gloves to protect her hands from its talons.
Nearly two weeks ago, a garbage truck in Avoca, Neb., hit a snowy owl. It suffered a fractured humerus. Veterinarians at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo pinned the fracture and applied an external brace so the bone would not twist. The owl is recovering.
Last year, Raptor Recovery picked up 16 starving or injured snowy owls in Nebraska. Twelve died. Two recovered enough to be released back into the wild in Minnesota. The other two had wing injuries that prevented their release. They were placed in centers for educational purposes.
Raptor Recovery is an educational non-profit organization. It is the only group in Nebraska permitted by the state and federal government to rehabilitate orphaned or injured raptors.
Lewis said she was cautiously optimistic that the CenturyLink owl may survive.
“We'll take it a couple hours at a time,'' she said.
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