Edmonton·Video

Snowy owl survives apparent fiery flight through methane flare

A snowy owl rescued from an east Edmonton ditch will spend at least a year in care after apparently surviving a flight through a flare.

'She would have literally been on fire, flying through the air, until she didn't have enough feathers left'

A snowy owl discovered in east Edmonton with burned feathers will take more than a year at WildNorth's rehab centre to recover, says Elizabeth Malta. 0:45

A snowy owl rescued from an east Edmonton ditch will spend at least a year in care after apparently surviving a flight through a flare.

"This bird must have flown through a methane flare," said Dale Gienow, rescue coordinator with WildNorth, an Edmonton-based rescue and rehabilitation facility for injured wildlife.

"We don't know whether it was perched upon a stack and the flames came up and singed it, or if it literally flew through.

"At any rate, it must have been a very traumatic experience for the bird because she would have literally been on fire, flying through the air, until she didn't have enough feathers left and plummeted to the ground."

Gienow was called in to capture and rescue the injured owl after a City of Edmonton truck driver spotted the big white bird bounding across a busy Edmonton highway last week.

It's not every day that you see a bird like that running across the road

"He noticed an injured owl running across the road near the intersection of the Yellowhead and the Anthony Henday," Gienow said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.  "So he watched this bird, this big, beautiful, white and black owl, and of course that got his attention.

"It's not every day that you see a bird like that running across the road."

Gienow got directions from the driver and headed out to where the bird was last seen. Though the owl had lost the ability to fly and couldn't travel far, she would be hard to spot in the freshly fallen snow.

Gienow searched the area to no avail and called the truck driver back to help out.
The injured snowy owl was found in east Edmonton last week. (WildNorth)
The pair eventually found the owl sitting calmly near an old chain link fence, in a nearby industrial area.

The yellow-eyed creature looked sickly and underweight, but had no obvious injuries.

"This gentleman had agreed to help me capture the bird so I gave him a net and I grabbed a net and the bird actually proved to be pretty easy to capture," Gienow said.

"It didn't try to fly away or run so I picked the bird up, put it in a kennel and drove it back to the wildlife hospital. She wasn't very feisty so I suspected that maybe it had been grounded for a while."

'Crispy to the touch'

It wasn't until they got the owl back to the veterinary clinic at the rehab centre and a staff member gently opened its wings, that it became apparent her flight feathers had been singed, Gienow said.

The owl likely flew through a methane flare, he said. They've dealt with similar cases at the rehab centre before.

"All of its primary feathers, these are the main longish feathers along each wing, were singed by fire where you could just see the quill," he said.

"And a lot of the actual feathers were gone, they had actually gone up in flames and a lot of the chest feathers were also crispy to the touch."

It will be at least a year before the bird moults all the burned feathers off and new ones take their place, Gienow said.

Even after the plumage grows back, the bird will have to work to regain the strength in her injured wings.
A rescuer believes flames from a methane flare burned the bird's feathers down to the quill. (WildNorth)

'This one's a real survivor'

"The bird otherwise is fine," he said. "Even though it hit the ground it didn't receive any other major injuries, but the problem is, these birds moult or shed their feathers once a year and grow them back again.

"So this bird will have to remain in captivity with us for a year to a year and half until those burnt feathers grow out.

"And she'll have to build up those muscles again, until she can be strong enough for us to release her back into the wild."

The bird of prey won't be the only bird of a feather at the centre during her recovery. Gienow said it's been "the winter of owls" at the facility.

WildNorth has taken in seven owls in the last week and the staff are currently working with local wildlife biologists to investigate the trend.

For her part, the scorched snowy owl is on the mend at WildNorth's dedicated rehab centre in Spruce Grove.

She is slowly regaining her vigour, thanks in part to tasty morsels of meat her caretakers have been carefully feeding her with tweezers.

"It seems like she's doing really well," said Gienow. "This one's a real survivor." 
The owl is regaining her strength at a rehab centre at Spruce Grove. (WildNorth)
 

About the Author

Wallis Snowdon

Journalist

Wallis Snowdon is a digital journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has nearly a decade of experience reporting behind her. Originally from New Brunswick, her journalism career has taken her from Nova Scotia to Fort McMurray. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca