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Snowy owl dies after water rescue

Photo provided by the U.P. Wildlife Rehabilitation Group - Keweenaw A snowy owl was retrieved from under the Portage Lake Lift Bridge Sunday after falling into the water. It was taken by the U.P. Wildlife Rehabilitation - Keweenaw Group for treatment, though unfortunately dying the next day.

HOUGHTON — A snowy owl was saved from the Portage Lake Shipping Canal by Houghton police Sunday, though it later died.

The department received a call of an injured owl which jumped into the canal at Bridgeview Park, said Nate Kinnunen of the Houghton Police Department. By the time officers arrived, it was halfway across the canal. Kinnunen estimated the owl was in the water for about 25 minutes.

Kinnunen was able to retrieve the owl from the pylons under the bridge on the Hancock side with a catch pole. He then took the bird back to the shoreline, where Beth Maatta of the U.P. Wildlife Rehabilitation – Keweenaw Group was waiting.

“We do a lot more than just write speeding tickets, so it’s always nice to be able to help out any way we can,” Kinnunen said.

Maatta thanked Kinnunen for his work.

“It was thanks to his being there quickly and finding something to use to get it out of there,” she said.

Maatta specializes in treating raptors, pigeons and adult birds. Maatta brought the owl back to her house, where she tried to stabilize it with oral fluids. She also placed the owl on heat to warm it up. It was “very, very thin,” she said.

“The first thing is to get it stabilized, and then you can do more treatment,” she said.

Emaciation protocol calls for fluids first to get the owl’s digestive tract going. Unless it starts with something easily digestible, the owl won’t have the energy. That can lead to refeeding syndrome.

As recommended, Maatta fed it a powder supplement mixed with fluids, with feedings spaced four to five hours apart. She did two feedings before going to bed that night. When she woke up, the owl had died.

“Likely its organs had already started shutting down from being so starved,” she said.

The survival rates for owls in that condition is about 10 to 15%, Maatta said.

She said the owl was likely a first-year male that came down from northern Canada. They must first cross an arboreal forest, where inexperienced hunters can have trouble finding prey. Then comes the crossing of Lake Superior, which is energy-draining.

“The starvation, in combination with flying across Lake Superior, is too much for them,” Maatta said.

The owl was the second snowy owl admitted in less than 24 hours. Another emaciated owl was found in the woods in Baraga County, unable to fly. It died shortly after arriving, Maatta said.

“It’s just incredibly hard to save them,” she said.

That two arrived in such a short span is probably a fluke, Maatta said. They’re more common in “eruption years,” where more owls move beyond their traditional geographic limits.

So far this year, Maatta has handled about 50 birds; their other bird rehabber has treated about 80, Maatta said. Their fawn rehabber has helped six fawns and seven squirrels, while their small animal rehabber has seen 95 animals.

Maatta is also kicking off a fundraiser on Giving Tuesday to build a flight enclosure at her home, where she can rehabilitate birds prior to their being released back into the wild. She has a small one for songbirds, but the space is insufficient for larger animals such as owls.

“When you’re going out there multiple times a day to exercise the birds, it just makes sense,” she said.

People can donate through the U.P. Wildlife Rehabilitation – Keweenaw Group page on Facebook, at their website (upwildlife1.wixsite.com/website) or by mail at 42057 Archambeau Rd., Chassell, MI 49916.

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