Northern Illinois may not have much snow yet, but that hasn't stopped snowy owls from swooping into the area.
"We're in the midst of a snowy owl irruption," said Chris Gutmann, the Forest Preserve District's facility supervisor at Isle a la Cache Museum. An "irruption" is a sudden influx of animals to an area. "Every winter, birds from up north like pine siskins, common redpolls, snowy owls, etc. make their way south for the winter, but it's variable each year how many end up in this area," Gutmann explained. "The variability is due to different factors. For finches, it has more to do with seed production in different areas.
"For snowy owls, the factors are more complex, and ornithologists are still trying to sort out what exactly triggers large vs. small movements," Gutmann said. "Recent studies have shown, though, that most visiting 'snowies' are not starving, which is a common myth. Regardless of the year, they are rare to see in our area and a treat for birders to find."
Snowy owls spend warm months above the Arctic Circle, but they head south to the Lower 48 states during winter to hunt for food, which typically consists of lemmings and other small mammals and waterfowl. "On both their breeding and wintering grounds, their diet can range widely to include rodents, rabbits, hares, squirrels, weasels, wading birds, seabirds, ducks, grebes, and geese," according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, All About Birds. And unlike most other owls, snowy owls are diurnal, which means they hunt during the day.
Sometimes, snowy owls can get injured as they travel to a new area. That's what happened to a gorgeous snowy owl that was roosting on a utility pole along Rodeo Drive in Bolingbrook earlier this month. When the Forest Preserve's Jessica Prince-Sharrar headed to Bolingbrook to see the owl, which had been reported on an Illinois birding network, she said she never dreamed she would see it standing on the narrow road shoulder, inches way from traffic. The bird was standing along Rodeo Drive between Essington Road and Plainfield Naperville Road, southeast of the Forest Preserve's Riverview Farmstead Preserve.
Prince-Sharrar, the District's education and outreach supervisor, immediately knew something was wrong. Other passers-by stopped to help and Falconer Heather Henry-Nelson was called. She arrived quickly, covered the snowy owl with a blanket and inspected the bird to determine the problem. As it turns out, the owl's left wing was broken, Prince-Sharrar reported. The owl was placed into the falconer's crate and transported to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County's Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn. Unfortunately, the owl's injuries were too severe and it didn't survive its ordeal.
But bird and owl rehabilitation efforts can be successful. Willowbrook Wildlife Center recently released a previously injured snowy owl into a DuPage forest preserve on December 1.
The bird had been found by Chicago Bird Collision Monitors with only a small wound near its talon. The bird convalesced at the wildlife center for two weeks before it was released.
If you encounter a snowy owl or any other type of bird or animal in the wild that is injured, the University of Illinois Extension has a comprehensive website, Living with Wildlife in Illinois, that gives information on what you should do. For instance, with regard to larger birds, the extension service says it's best to call an expert.
"Birds of prey (hawks, falcons, eagles, and owls) and large wading birds (herons and egrets) should not be handled by the public, because they can cause serious injury," the website explained. "Call a wildlife rehabilitator for assistance if you find a sick or injured bird. If you find multiple dead birds in one location, call the (Illinois Department of Natural Resources) wildlife biologist assigned to your county."
Contact information for wildlife rehabilitators, IDNR wildlife biologists and conservation police can be found on the website. According to the website, local or conservation police should be called if an animal poses a threat to public health or safety.
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