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Snowy owl dies of lead poisoning

Article Date: 2006-12-18   Source:   Comments: 0

By Clair Johnson

Bozeman, Montana, U.S.A. - A snowy owl being treated for lead poisoning at the Montana Raptor Conservation Center in Bozeman has died.

A blood sample from the owl showed the toxicity of its blood was seven times the lethal limit for lead poisoning, said John Bell, a center volunteer who helped care for the sick owl. An X-ray showed the owl had four pellets from lead shot.

''The lead poisoning had taken effect and killed it,'' he said on Monday.

The owl died Dec. 6, two days after arriving at the center from northeastern Montana. Bell went to check on it and found the owl dead in its cage.
"That was a sad day all around. This animal had so much fight. I felt really excited about this, being able to help get this owl back into the wild," Bell said.

The owl also had fractured wing. The break was lined up fairly well and the wing appeared to be healing naturally, he said.

Snowy owls are big, white raptors that breed in the Arctic tundra and winter on grasslands and marshes mostly in Canada. Snowies sometimes wander into the northern United States during the winter in search of food. The owls hunt rodents and perch in open fields and on fence posts, rocks and other objects near the ground. Snowies can weighh up to two pounds and are about 2 feet tall with wing spans up to 66 inches.

This snowy owl, a female, was found Nov. 28 about 300 feet outside the Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which is located 45 miles north of Culbertson.

Sean Cross, the refuge's assistant manager, said two hunters came into the office and reported finding the owl. The hunters were concerned because it couldn't fly, he said. Cross and another person caught it late in the day.

The owl was feisty but, Cross said, there was no blood that would have indicated an injury. "Dang, that's too bad," Cross said when learning the bird had died.

A volunteer drove the owl to the East Main Animal Clinic in Miles City.

Dr. Jean Lindley, a veterinarian at the clinic, checked the owl on Nov. 30 and helped arrange to have it transferred the rehabilitation center in Bozeman. She said there was no evidence of external injuries and the owl seemed to be in good physical shape.

Lindley has handled wild birds before but never a snowy owl. "It's the first and only one I've ever seen," she said. "He was a nasty bird, which is actually good."

The owl could have been shot or it could have ingested lead pellets by feeding on something that had been shot, she said.

The next leg of owl's journey brought it to the Moore Lane Veterinary Hospital in Billings on Dec. 3. X-rays there showed pellets in the bird, but they didn't appear to be interfering with anything, technician Robyn Bartz said. The owl flapped its wings. Its feet and eyes were fine.

Because there didn't seem to be a reason to continue holding the owl, a staffer released it in Riverfront Park. Owls usually don't fly away immediately and often stand a while before taking off, Bartz said. When a staffer returned to check on the owl, it was gone.

The owl, however, had been recaptured by Kayhan Ostovar, president of the Yellowstone Valley Aububon Society and employee with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Responding to a call that dogs were attacking a snowy owl believed to be injured, Ostovar immediately went to investigate and captured the owl.

The owl went back to the Moore Lane hospital where it stayed until arrangements were made with the raptor center to pick up the bird on Dec. 4.

Despite its ordeal, the owl was not emaciated by the time it arrived in Bozeman, although its wings were drooping, Bell said earlier. The owl underwent calcium treatments to try to help its body rapidly expel lead from the blood and kidneys.

Federal laws make it illegal to possess migratory birds without authorization. People who find sick or injured birds are urged to contact the FWP or the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society, which arranges transportation of sick or injured wild birds to qualified veterinarians or rehabilitation centers.

Disclaimer: This article has been reproduced from and placed here for comment. is not responsible for the accuracy of any information in this article, and does not necessarily agree with the author's opinions.

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