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Recovering snowy owl to serve as 'ambassador'

An injured snowy owl is shown at Bailey

An injured snowy owl is shown at Bailey Arboretum in Lattingtown. Credit: Chris Ware

A snowy owl who headed to Long Island for the winter and got a little beaten up in the Big Apple is now destined to serve as "an ambassador" for his species at a Vermont education center, a local rehabilitator said.

It turns out the owl, unofficially known as Tundra, is one of a bumper crop to have embarked on such a journey from the Arctic, with many landing in the eastern United States.

Sightings this winter on Long Island are up by "an estimated 200 percent," according to Jim Jones, board member for Volunteers for Wildlife, a rescue, rehabilitation and education center in Lattingtown.

Tundra was injured at LaGuardia Airport -- possibly caught in an airplane backdraft -- and sustained a broken wing, which has since been repaired with pins, Jones said.

Recuperating in an outdoor aviary at the center -- relishing the unseasonable cold -- the owl will be heading soon to the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, as he is no longer able to survive in the wild, Jones said.

An owl type popularized by Hedwig, companion to the fictional wizard Harry Potter, snowies "were flooding across the border in numbers that hadn't been seen in perhaps half a century," wrote Scott Weidensaul in the March-April issue of Audubon magazine. It was a "record-breaking irruption -- as such unpredictable invasions of northern birds are known," wrote Weidensaul, co-director of Project Snowstorm, researchers who are studying some of these mostly white-plumaged, yellow-eyed visitors.

Locally, Danielle McManus, 30, Southampton Town bay constable, tells of spotting seven owls in about a one-hour period in December, each perched up on the dunes, while she was patrolling the beach from the Shinnecock Inlet to West Hampton Beach. "I thought it was amazing," she said.

The owl numbers can be traced back to last summer's large population of northern Quebec's lemmings, small rodents that are the snowies' staple meal. That led to a "high density of breeding owls," said Jean-Francois Therrien, senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Orwigsburg, Pa.

But with lemmings moving under snow cover in the winter, making them hard to hunt, "lots of fledglings seeking a wintering territory" went south, he said.

Adept at swooping down on prey in the Arctic's wide open spaces, snowies favor similar areas here, such as beaches and airports, explaining the fate of Tundra, who was brought to Volunteers for Wildlife by airport staffers, Jones said.

In December, with the large influx of snowies underway, Port Authority officials pulled back from an extermination approach to one of trapping and relocating the owls, with an eye to "humanely controlling bird populations" at area airports, while safeguarding passengers.

While Tundra won't be joining his buddies winging back home or tasting wild lemming anytime soon, Jones said the owl has been happily packing away around 5 ounces of rat and mouse each day.

About snowy owls

North America's heaviest owl.

Adults are close to 2 feet tall; weigh around 4 pounds.

Main prey: lemmings, also rodents, rabbits, songbirds.

Make "hoo hoo" sounds, with males hooting more than females.

Unlike most other owls, they are active in daylight hours.

Depending on food supply, females lay three to five, as many as 12 eggs.

Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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