Young, starving snowy owls are being rescued in record numbers in Saskatchewan this fall.
In the past three weeks, Mark Dallyn has had eight juvenile snowy owls brought to his Healing Haven Wildlife Rescue facility near Dorintosh, 25 minutes north of Meadow Lake. All of them weighed half their normal weight. He’s also had 17 calls about owls, but not every bird survived to make it to the rescue facility.
“They’re just severely emaciated,” Dallyn said, adding only three owls remain. “These ones that did pull though, it’s really amazing that they did.”
Dallyn said every year the centre takes care of a variety of animals, including injured snowy owls, but this is the largest number he’s ever seen at one time all suffering from a common ailment.
La Ronge Conservation Officer Service inspector Daryl Minter said his office responded to seven snowy owl calls in 10 days from La Ronge, Stony Rapids, Beauval, Pinehouse and Melfort. Snowy owls typically spend summers on the Arctic tundra and migrate south to north and central Saskatchewan if the weather becomes too cold or food supplies run dry.
“They usually (migrate) down south later, and all of these have been immature owls,” he said.
Dallyn said he isn’t sure why they’ve had an influx of malnourished snowy owls, but Minter speculates this past summer’s northern Saskatchewan fires may have damaged the birds’ respiratory system and prevented them from hunting.
“We think the high concentrations of particulate can cause persistent cough and increased nasal discharge, wheezing and increased physical effort in breathing which is just too much for these young owls,” Minter said.
Dallyn said the birds that died were sent to the University of Saskatchewan Western College of Veterinary Medicine for examination and necropsy. The university has also been caring for an adult great horned owl named Lola who was brought in three months ago with singed tail and wing feathers.
Lola was found in Lakeview, 30 minutes north of North Battleford and it’s unclear how the owl’s wings were damaged. Exotics department member Dr. Miranda Sadar said Lola’s damaged wings likely hindered silent flying.
“Owls need to be silent when they fly to sneak up on their prey.” Sadar said.
Owls naturally molt at specific times of the year, but if feathers are damaged, the follicles are stimulated to grow new ones. Sadar said because Lola’s feathers were only singed on the dead parts, the follicles weren’t stimulated to grow new ones. Owls molt so veterinarians are waiting for Lola’s feather cycle to take its natural course.
Dallyn said after treating the snowy owls with a liquid diet and slowly moving them to their regular diet of mice, the trio have gained more than a kilogram of weight each and are doing well.
Lola and the snowy owls at Healing Haven are expected to be released in the spring to prevent a shock to their system and give them the best chance of survival.
He said if anyone comes across an animal in distress, they should call their local conservation office or the Wildlife Rehabilitation Society of Saskatchewan and try to leave the animal alone. He said people should not feed wildlife because if an animal is malnourished; the shock of a high influx of food could kill it.