Nearly a Year After Christmas Day Rescue, Snowy Owl Released by Centre Wildlife Care
December 03, 2018 1:35 PM
by Geoff Rushton
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Just in time for Christmas, St. Nick is back in the wild.

St. Nick was the name given to the snowy owl — a rare sight in Pennsylvania — found injured on Christmas Day 2017 at the State Correctional Institute at Smithfield in Huntingdon and brought to the nonprofit Centre Wildlife Care in Port Matilda.

After a longer-than-planned time at Centre Wildlife Care, St. Nick was released into the wild on Nov. 29 at an undisclosed remote location several hours away.

"We typically don’t see them at all in Pennsylvania, and when we see them it’s an extremely rare sight," said Robyn Graboski, Centre Wildlife Care director and founder, who noted the birds are the largest owls in North America and a rarer sight than bald eagles.

"Not only are they special, they’re beautiful owls."

Last Dec. 25, Staff at SCI Smithfield spotted the injured snowy owl, which had skin tears and broken feathers after getting caught up in razor wire at the prison. They contacted Wildlife Conservation Officer Amanda Isett of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, who was able to corral him. Volunteer Charlotte Simpson then transported the owl to CWC, where he received fluids and immediate medical care and began the rehabilitation process.

Native to the tundra of northern Canada, snowy owls will migrate south in the winter before returning in the spring. That's when Graboski planned to release St. Nick, and she said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, which licenses CWC, prefers that birds not be kept longer than six months.

"We tried to release him several times but whenever we’d put him in a flight cage he’d go off food," Graboski said. "We think there were some pain-related issues with his wing injury. When we’d bring him back inside and put him on pain medication he’d start eating again."

The owl provided challenges in another way, too. CWC buys frozen foods for birds in its care -- rats, mice, chicks and quail. St. Nick, however, had discriminating tastes and refused to eat anything that wasn't brown in color.

"He was a picky eater," Graboski said. "He’d only eat certain foods, so we’d have to buy special foods just for him... Of course, we’re going to get what he wants because he’s special."

She said it cost $5 to $10 a day to feed St. Nick, in addition to medical and care expenses. Since he missed his migration, CWC kept him throughout the summer, but fearing he could contract West Nile virus, which saw an uptick in cases this year, he had to be vaccinated for that, too.

"I was holding my breath all summer long," Graboski said. "I was terrified something was going to happen to him. We didn’t want to release him in the summer because that’s not their normal migration time."

Into the fall, CWC worked with Project Snowstorm, which is dedicated to snowy owl research and conservation, to identify the best location to release St. Nick. They planned to release him several weeks ago, but, ironically, snow interfered with the snowy's release.

Graboski said they did not advertise where he was released because they did not want any human intervention that might jeopardize his release or welfare.

CWC received a lot of interest from members of the public who wanted to see St. Nick in person, but state and federal regulations prohibit allowing the public to have access to animals undergoing rehabilitation.

"If I would have advertised it, we would have had people coming in from all over the country to see this bird," Graboski said. "It was a bit of a challenge dealing with the public with this bird. Many people called me wanting to come see him, but I couldn’t allow that because it’s a violation of regulations."

Only Graboski, two photographers and the person who coordinated the release location were on hand for the release.

"We spent three or four hours getting there, we had planned for weeks, and when we opened the cage we had 10 seconds to get pictures," Graboski said. "He just took off like a flash."

Special as he is, St. Nick is just one of more than 1,500 animals CWC will take in each year. The organization is supported entirely by donations, and if you'd like to help with their ongoing mission, you can donate at www.centrewildlifecare.org. And for questions about orphaned and injured animals, call 814-692-0004.

CWC also will soon be launching its Sponsor A Critter program. Those who donate, for themselves or as a gift, to sponsor an animal's rehabilitation will receive a photo, case history and certificate. More information will be available soon on the CWC website.

Graboski said she expects the program will include an opportunity to sponsor an animal in honor of St. Nick and receive photos and the case history for the snowy owl.

"He’s definitely a very special bird," she said.

Photo by Chet Gottfried

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