On a cold, blustery afternoon, Dr. Belinda Burwell, director and founder of Wildlife Veterinary Care in Clarke County, gave me a tour of the facility and introduced me to some of the patients, one being a special new addition, Frosty, the snowy owl.
“A year ago he was spotted standing on the ground, not moving, by the workers at the Rubbermaid Plant in Winchester” she explained, and “was brought to WVC by Animal Control.” Of the many owls she treats, I asked, “why is this one special?”
“We very rarely see snowy owls here in Virginia – usually once every 4-5 years, one or two will be seen in the area because there is an irruption (a naturally occurring heavy migration) of snowy owls from the arctic tundra.” After a successful summer nesting season, the abundance of owlets, due to good weather and plentiful prey, causes some of them to migrate further south looking for food.
Nomadic in nature, snowy owls have been seen as far south as Florida and Bermuda and as far west as Colorado and beyond. Owlets are born with a brown spot pattern; males lose them as they mature while females keep the pattern and grow larger than males. It was determined this owl was a male.
As we approached this normally shy beauty in his temporary enclosure, we could hear him hissing, a sound like gahw. He was eating well she said, and quite alert. His bright yellow eyes glowed in the sun. Owls have binocular vision, fixed eye sockets, and can rotate their heads up to 270° but he was very focused on us. Getting use to humans and being handled is part of his rehabilitation.
Farsighted, snowy owls are unable to see anything within a few centimeters of their eyes, but caught prey is “felt” by the hairlike feathers acting as feelers on the beak and feet. Their vision is exceptional in day or evening, and perfectly adapted to the never-ending days of Arctic light. Even more acute than their sight is their hearing. The stiff feathers around the eyes reflect sound waves to its ear openings. This ability allows them to locate prey several feet under snowdrifts. The serrated edges along the wing line make them virtually without sound as they soar looking for prey.
“He was very thin and had an infected open fracture in his wing, and near death.” Parasites and a trichomonas infection in his throat complicated his chances of returning to the wild, but he survived the initial surgery. As he got stronger, he pulled the pins out of his wing that were stabilizing his fracture but after 10 weeks of another surgery and post-op care, amputation of lower part of the wing was performed.
“We decided we would keep him for our education programs if he could handle living outside in a hot Virginia summer. This past summer we set him up in an outside cage with a child’s kiddy pool and found that he did well in spite of the heat and humidity.” In time, Frosty will join Owlbert, a short-eared owl, Hootie the screech owl, Hoodini, a barred owl and former escape artist, and Gandolph, a great horned owl in WVC’s education programs. Dr. Burwell grinned, “We named him Frosty because he looks like a snowman, and he has a bit of a frosty personality.”
We moved to the barn where there was an American bald eagle recovering from a wing injury. “He was found by men working on a train track and is doing very well now” she said. Imposing and majestic, just feet away from this very quiet and stoic raptor, I could have stayed all day. Because lead poisoning is a serious problem affecting eagles, WVC has its own blood lead testing machine to quickly test and treat for toxicity which can make the difference between life and death.
On the other end of the size spectrum, Dr. Burwell brought out an adorable saw-whet owl, the smallest owl known to live in Virginia, and one of the most rarely seen. Beloved for their “cat like” face. He’s recovering nicely from a head injury and will be released when he’s given the “OK to fly.” As time had come to start the afternoon feeding, I got one last photograph of the eagle and said goodbye to Frosty. No longer hissing, he seemed content standing in the sun, waiting for Dr. Burwell and his mice.
Wildlife Veterinary Care is a 501(c)3 charity. Its14 active volunteers assist Dr. Burwell in every facet of the operation from transporting animals and soliciting donations of food and supplies to helping feed and clean up after the animals. Many of her patients are from other wildlife rehabilitators and wildlife centers sent to Dr. Burwell for special surgeries on their eyes and limbs. Visit www.wildlifevetcare.com to donate, and for more information regarding their future activities. Following them on Facebook will keep you up to date with their patients and success stories. Most importantly, when an injured animal is found, before removing an animal and transporting him, call WVC first for advice (540) 664-9494.