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Sam Cook column: In effort to save owl's life, a glimpse of the wild

Rich Hoeg of Duluth holds the injured snowy owl he found near Silver Creek on the North Shore. When Hoag captured the owl, he made sure to approach it from behind to avoid its sharp talons. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Rich Hoeg of Duluth was doing some birding near Silver Creek on the North Shore early Tuesday when he came face to face with a snowy owl.

"It was just 10 feet away," said Hoeg, 61, an avid birder and photographer.

The white owl with the dark flecks in its feathers was a creature of the Arctic. A few snowies come down as far as Minnesota and Wisconsin each year. Some years, they come into the U.S. by the thousands.

Hoeg watched the owl for a bit and took a few photos. He and another birder noticed in the photos some orange near one of the owl's wings. A blood stain? Possibly.

Hoeg left the bird alone but returned that evening, in the hour before sunset, to check on it. The owl hadn't budged. Hoeg suspected it was injured or too weak to move.

Following detailed instructions from a phone conversation with Frank Nicoletti, banding director at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Hoeg approached the owl from behind as it sat on the ground.

"The key was to come up behind the bird, and slowly lower a blanket over the owl," Hoeg wrote in a Facebook post. "Then grab the snowy from behind. As talons only move forward, the owl will not be able to sink its talons into you."

Rich Hoeg of Duluth found this injured snowy owl near Silver Creek on the North Shore on Monday. Bob King / News Tribune

Successful capture

He executed Nicoletti's instructions perfectly, placing a blanket over the bird and picking it up.

"He struggled a little bit, but not too much," Hoeg said.

He placed the owl, still wrapped in the blanket, behind the passenger seat on the floor of his car, where it stayed for the 40-mile drive back to Duluth.

Hoeg drove it to Wildwoods, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Duluth, where the owl was examined by director Farzad Farr. Hoeg was pressed into service as an assistant, first holding an anesthesia mask over the owl's beak and nose, and later an oxygen mask while Farr examined the bird.

The owl had no broken bones, Farr said, but it had a visible abrasion under the edge of one wing. Farr gave the bird fluids and antibiotics and patched the abrasion with a kind of synthetic skin material.

"He's pretty skinny," Farr said.

The owl weighed just under 3 pounds. An adult snowy owl might weigh 4 pounds, according to birding guides.

Rich Hoeg watches as Farzad Farr, director of Wildwoods, prepares the injured snowy owl for transport. Bob King / News Tribune

Road trip

On Wednesday morning, Hoeg picked the owl up from Wildwoods and headed for the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, where the bird was to be examined and treated. But when he stopped at a rest area near the Twin Cities, he noticed that the bird, in its pet kennel, had slumped to the side.

"I thought, 'That can't be a good sign,' " Hoeg said.

He delivered the owl to the Raptor Center soon after. Veterinarians there soon confirmed what Hoeg had suspected. The owl had died.

"Obviously, I'm bummed about it," Hoeg said. "I love birds. I put in quite an effort to try to save it. I would do it all over again."

Hoeg is also a realist.

"Sometimes stories don't end happily," he said.

Population dynamics

The snowy owl population in the Arctic is thought to be stable, fluctuating with the lemming population. And yet hundreds, probably a few thousand, snowy owls die every year, most of them without ever laying eyes on a human being. Such is the lot of most wild creatures. We just don't happen to witness those deaths, much less become involved in trying to save a single wild thing's life.

Most of us, though, would probably do exactly what Hoeg did if we found an owl in distress a couple thousand miles from its home. We'd try to get it patched up and see it released eventually.

Sometimes it works.

Sometimes it doesn't.

But in the process of trying to save any single owl, we become aware that any wild population is a collection of individuals, each creature trying to secure enough food, elude predators, avoid calamity and rear its young.

Once we have looked into the riveting yellow glare of a snowy owl's eyes, we have been granted a glimpse of the wild.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at http://samcook.areavoices.com.

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