Raptor rehabilitator Dianne Moller knows how hard it is to give a snowy owl a bath.
“A rehabber’s job is not as glamorous as many people think,” she said, days after cleaning manure from the feathers of a young bird.
The owl ended up in a manure pit at a farm near Janesville, and the property owners called Moller for help. She is the founder of Hoo’s Woods Raptor Center of Milton.
Covered in sludge, the owl never would have been able to fly if released, Moller said.
“Wet feathers freeze,” she explained.
In addition, the bird from northern Canada or the Arctic had a low body weight.
Today, Moller is optimistic “Mr. Clean,” as she named the owl, will be strong enough to make his journey back to the Arctic when released.
“People have asked how birds get into manure pits,” Moller said. “A crust forms on the top of the pit that small birds or rodents can stand on. When the bird of prey goes to grab the prey, it can get sucked in like quicksand.”
Fortunately, the farm owners were quick to respond.
The snowy owl is one of more than 170 counted across 57 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties as of mid-December.
Bird conservationists say the winter is shaping up to be favorable for snowy owl sightings.
This is the third winter in recent years that the charismatic birds, with large yellow eyes and bright white plumage, have wandered so far south.
Not all birds have been as lucky as Mr. Clean.
Ryan Brady of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said one snowy owl was found dead near highways 26 and 59 in Milton. Another died in the middle of a field west of Milton.
“It may have been clipped by a car,” Brady said. “We’ve seen quite a few road kills statewide. Sometimes the owls have injuries that prevent them from hunting.”
Moller reported a third owl was found dead near Milton last week, and two more were found dead near Watertown.
“It’s so stressful for them,” she said.
Young birds hatched in the summer of 2017 dominate the owls in Wisconsin, and they have no experience with people or cars, Brady said.
He asked people who see owls to keep their distance.
“Do not approach them too closely,” Brady said. “If the bird is watching you or if you flush it, you are too close.”
Some of the birds are still perfecting their hunting skills, might be on the verge of starvation and do not need added stress.
Brady explained that the periodic mass movements of snowy owls from their summer grounds in far northern Canada and the Arctic depend on a small rodent called a lemming. Snowy owls love to eat lemmings.
An abundance of lemmings allows the birds to raise large families. The young owls then fly south by the hundreds to avoid competition with older birds.
“We are seeing a lot of juveniles who hatched this past summer as a result of good reproductive success,” Brady said. “This is good news in the here and now. But some evidence shows their populations are declining globally.”
The North American Bird Conservation Initiative listed the snowy owl among 33 “Common Birds in Steep Decline.” According to the group, survey data suggest that more than half of the bird’s global population has been lost in the past 40 years.
Reasons for the decline are unclear but might be related to the impact of changing weather patterns on Arctic ecosystems, the group said.
A few snowy owls reach Wisconsin annually, but when they come in large numbers, it is known as an irruption.
“We have seen five irruptions in nine years,” Brady said. “On the surface, it may seem like a good thing. But the longer term trend may not be so good.”
He cautioned that data about snowy owl populations is “not rock solid because the birds spend their summers in remote areas which are not well monitored.”
While some birds get into trouble living alongside people, Brady said the majority do well.
“It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said. “If you haven’t seen one yet, the show is not over. By January, they are generally settled in where they will spend the winter. By March, they get the itch to head north. By April, most have departed.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email email@example.com.