By Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post
The majestic snowy owl that has captivated the District in recent days was apparently hit by a bus downtown early Thursday. It suffered a broken toe and possible internal injuries. The adult owl was struck near 15th and I streets NW and taken by police to the National Zoo, where it was treated. The owl also may have suffered a head injury. Upon arrival at the zoo, the owl was alert and responsive but subdued, officials there said. There were no obvious physical injuries, although there was blood on the bird and in its mouth, which is consistent with head trauma.
In a video supplied by the zoo, the owl looked dazed as it was held by a keeper wearing heavy protective gloves. A veterinarian examined the owl’s eyes, and the bird was given pain medication and fluids subcutaneously. The owl was then taken to City Wildlife, a D.C. rescue and rehabilitation facility, where it was examined further and will be cared for until it is well enough to be released. Anne Lewis, the organization’s president, said Thursday night that the owl has a broken toe on its left foot and will be X-rayed for internal injuries.
The zoo said it believes that the owl is female, based on its size and color: Females tend to be a little larger and darker than males. Lewis added that there will be a blood test, which should determine its sex. The owl had been fed and was being kept Thursday night in a large plastic crate, covered with a sheet, in the wildlife facility’s “quiet room.” “What we don’t know is how severe the internal injuries may be,” Lewis said. “And that’s why our prognosis is guarded for the owl.”
When told of the incident, Ellen Paul, executive director of the Washington-based Ornithological Council, said: “Oh, my God! Don’t tell me this! Envisioning a likely scenario for the owl’s injury, she said that “raptors will focus like a laser at whatever prey they’re going after” and ignore everything else. They have superb forward vision but poor peripheral vision, she said. “I knew that bird was going to get hit. “It’s got to be very accurate,” she added. “It’s going to swoop down and pick up an animal that may be moving. It has to be able to see and focus and lock on to the animal. And it’s not going to notice . . . what’s coming at it from the side.” Paul, who had seen photos of the owl, said the bird did not appear to be healthy to her, and she worried that if it was feeding on rats, it could be ingesting rodent poisons.
Owls are nocturnal and start hunting at dusk. Their wings and feathers are designed so that their attack is silent. Swathed beak to talon in thick layers of protective feathers, snowy owls normally live in the treeless tundra of the Arctic and hunt in frozen darkness. But Paul said two other snowy owls have been spotted around Reagan National Airport. She said that a snowy owl died Wednesday when it was hit by a plane at Philadelphia International Airport, which is adjacent to the Delaware River. The owls may frequent areas around rivers to feed on waterfowl.
The owl in the D.C. area was first sighted amid last week’s frigid weather perched on an awning near McPherson Square at 15th and K streets NW. It dazzled pedestrians and photographers with its white feathers, yellow eyes and swiveling head. It later appeared on a ledge outside The Washington Post, on L Street just west of 15th Street, drawing a day-long crowd of admirers. Lewis said experts are sure that it is the same owl that was hit because markings that appear in photographs of the McPherson Square owl match markings on this one.
Snowy owls have also been spotted this winter from Revere Beach in Massachusetts to Little Talbot Island State Park near Jacksonville, Fla. “They’re all over the East Coast,” Paul said, adding that they’re pushed south in a search for food. According to an eBird tracker operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, the birds have also been spotted in the Great Lakes region, the Dakotas and Arkansas. In the D.C. region, there have been other sightings at Hains Point and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
Darryl Fears, Greg Linch and Mark Berman contributed to this report.