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Snowy Owl pays visit to Taylor County

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Rare bird has attracted interest in neighboring states

By Moreland Jeff

 

A rare Snowy Owl, normally found in northern Canada, has temporarily made its home in Taylor County.

For several weeks now, the bird has been spotted in the Cave Road area, where it continued to be seen regularly as of Tuesday.

Randall Sharp owns a farm where the bird has spent the past few days, and he said it’s been around the area anywhere from 10 to 12 weeks. Earlier this week, the bird sat calmly on a large piece of concrete that made up an old building foundation on Sharp’s farm, and it didn’t seem to mind the attention it was attracting. 

Among those spending time watching the owl was Larry Hollon of Nashville, Tennessee. Hollon and his wife made the trip to Taylor County early Monday morning in hopes of seeing the bird.

“For me, it’s very rare, and the first time I’ve seen one. I haven’t even seen one in captivity,” Hollon said. “I had been willing to drive to Montana to see one that had been seen on a friend’s property there, but this was a much closer trip; it was a two-and-a-half hour drive, versus a three-day drive to Montana.”

Hollon said he learned of the owl’s presence in Taylor County from a couple of bird-watching groups of which he is a member. The groups, called Tennessee Birding and KY Birding, posted information about the owl via a listserv. Hollon said the information included GPS coordinates, which brought him right to the owl.

“We had packed some things, prepared to spend the night if we didn’t see the bird, but we came right to it,” he said. “The listserv gave the details and listed exactly where it was, including the details that it’s on this stone foundation, about 50 yards from the road.”

He said upon arrival, they spotted the bird immediately.

“He stands out. As soon as we drove up, we knew that was him,” Hollon added.

Kate Slankard, an avian biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the owl is not endangered, but said it is definitely an irregular visitor in Kentucky.

As to why the bird is here, Slankard could only speculate, but there are a few factors she said that could have brought it to the area, including prey availability in its native area, as well as a larger-than-normal amount of young owls hatched in a season. With less prey available, Slankard said the owls may go farther south in their search for food.

About five or six of the birds have been reported in Kentucky this year, according to Slankard, who said Snowy Owl spottings in this area is not something that can be predicted, and is not fully understood since they are so far from their normal habitat. She added that if you see one, they are not easily confused for other birds. The only two she said that could be misidentified as a Snowy Owl are the barn owl, which is a resident of Kentucky, or an albino hawk.

Still, she said there have been a lot of calls about this bird, and there is no doubt that it is a Snowy Owl.

Eileen Wicker is director of Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky, Inc., a facility in Louisville that rescues and releases sick and injured birds of prey. She said the Snowy Owl in Taylor County has been evaluated, and is definitely healthy.

“A lot of times when they are down, or they are staying in one spot, and it’s a bird that’s not supposed to be there, they will have something wrong with them,” Wicker said. “This bird flew great, it flew strong. It didn’t have a thing wrong with it. Then when I found out it had been living there for a long time, I was just shocked because they just don’t do that. It was really pleasant to see he was doing well.”

Wicker said for the owl to have spent as much time as it has in the area, there must be good hunting for it in the area. She said when she saw the owl, it was on Owl Creek Road, which is about two miles from the area where it has been spotted on Cave Road.

“It must be full of voles and mice and things they normally catch,” she said. She added that lemmings are also among the primary prey for Snowy Owls, and from time to time, the lemming population will be extremely low, causing the owls to have to travel to hunt. She said that is usually the case especially for young male Snowy Owls.

This owl, however, is a female, according to Wicker. She said its size, which she estimated to be between 18 and 24 inches in height, makes it a large bird, and that is usually the case for females. She said the females will weigh around 2,400 grams, which is equal to just more than 5 pounds.

Raptor Rehabilitation had been caring for a Snowy Owl until this past Friday. Wicker said the bird had been hit by two cars and was injured. They cared for it from December 2017 until this past week, when it was released back into the wild in Wisconsin.

“One eye had been completely obliterated with blood, and we treated it from December until last week,” she said, adding that the bird was now back to being healthy.

“I’ve got video of it flying, and it was just beautiful,” she said.

Wicker said the owl will not harm people unless it is injured, and that does not appear to be the case with the one here in Taylor County. She said when it was approached, it quickly flew away with no problem, which a healthy bird will do.

“If it is not injured, it will just fly away. But if it’s injured, the bird will immediately roll onto its back and prepare to defend itself with its feet in the air,” she said. “And  you do not want to mess with those feet, because they are very, very strong birds. The one we had here, with triple-leather gloves on, you could still feel the pressure of his talons. They are pretty good with their feet.”

For more on birds of prey and Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky, Inc., or to report a sick or injured bird of prey, visit raptorrehab.org on the internet,