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Julia Ponder, executive director of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, releases the snowy owl “D.C. Snowy” off Winter Street in Superior, Wis., on Saturday morning. The owl was reportedly hit by a bus in Washington, D.C. and then rehabilitated at the Raptor Center. Bob King | Forum News Service

Famous snowy owl set free after rehab in Minnesota

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By John Lundy

Forum News Service

SUPERIOR, Wis. — With a flurry of powerful wings and not even a glance back, what may be the most famous owl in America flew over a nondescript copse of trees in Superior and out of sight.

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Only a handful of local journalists watched as Dr. Julia Ponder of the University of Minnesota Raptor Center threw her hands up in the air to give the owl popularly known as D.C. Snowy a quick start. The time was just before noon Saturday, the place near Hallett Dock No. 8, appropriately located on Winter Street.

The male snowy owl might be on its way to the Arctic by the time you read this, according to Duluth biologist David Evans, who chose the release site.

It was a relatively quiet departure, but the owl had been a media star in Washington, D.C.

The raptor was part of an irruption of snowy owls this winter across the eastern United States. The term irruption is used by birders to describe the phenomenon that occurs when large numbers of a species appear in a place where they aren’t usually seen.

Snowy owls normally remain in the Arctic, where they enjoy a steady diet of lemmings. If a lemming shortage forces them farther south, they dine on mice and voles.

But even given the irruption, seeing a snowy in the urban wilds of our nation’s capital was “pretty unusual,” said Ponder, a veterinarian who is executive director of the Raptor Center.

“That’s why everyone’s all aflutter,” Evans added.

When the owl was spotted in downtown Washington in January, it drew curious crowds, according to a Washington Post blog. Guaranteeing even more attention, it perched for several hours on a ledge outside the Post headquarters, “leaving dedicated journalists no choice but to bravely ignore work and spend lots of time photographing and discussing the bird,” the blog added.

Some days later, the bird apparently was struck by a bus and an SUV. It was injured, but still capable of leading D.C. police on a two-hour chase downtown before it was captured, the Post reported.

But it wasn’t those injuries that caused the owl’s move to Minnesota, Ponder said.

It initially was treated at the Smithsonian Zoo; then at City Wildlife, an urban wildlife rehabilitation facility in Washington; and then at Tri-State, a bird rehab center in Delaware.

The U of M Raptor Center was asked to complete its care not because of the traffic accidents but because of burned feathers, Ponder said. It likely sustained the burns while perched on a methane burner in a landfill, she said.

D.C. Snowy spent about a month at the Raptor Center, during which a specialist essentially transplanted feathers from the carcass of another snowy owl to replace its burned feathers. That was followed by a time of reconditioning to get the bird back up to flying strength.

During the last couple of weeks, it shared an enclosure with a female snowy owl that Evans rescued in Superior. That owl was treated for tar on its feathers.

The Raptor Center likes to release birds near the place where they were found, Ponder said. But D.C. Snowy was too restless for a plane ride back to Washington. So on Saturday, Ponder and the Raptor Center’s Miranda Taylor drove up from St. Paul in Ponder’s Honda Accord, with two large owls in crates in the back seat.

Ponder removed D.C. Snowy, holding it securely as video and still cameras recorded the moment. The bird seemed content, occasionally opening its golden eyes and its powerful beak. Once released, though, it was an owl on a mission, making full use of its wingspan of about 4 feet.

The Superior owl would be released a bit later in another location. Despite their time together at the Raptor Center, the birds wouldn’t be expected to reconnect, Ponder said. Snowy owls are loners, she explained.

But then, no one really knows, Evans said impishly.

“Who knows what they do at night?” he asked. “Crazy kids.”

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