Alaska Airlines Gives Lift to Snowy Owl
Bird was found in Yakutat with a severely injured foot
6/29/2011 4:01 p.m.
A snowy owl who had been found severely injured and far from home has a new chance at life in the wild, thanks to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka, and Alaska Airlines, which flew the owl and her handlers from the center in Sitka to Barrow, Alaska, earlier this week.
After eight months in captivity while she recovered at the raptor center, the white and black speckled, yellow-eyed beauty was released Monday on the North Slope near Barrow in front of about 100 local residents and visitors who cheered as she flew out of sight.
From the moment she was taken out of the kennel where she had spent the last 24 hours, Lumi, as the center had named her, wanted to fly. She struggled against her handler's grip and flapped her wings to try to escape. She very nearly got away before Anthony Edwards, president of the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp., an Alaska Native corporation headquartered in Barrow, could grab a hold of her to release her.
Once she was released, she flew as far away from the crowd as her strength would allow as onlookers cheered and then rested in a field barely within view. It was exactly what her caretakers had hoped for.
"She was ready to go," said Jennifer Cedarleaf, avian rehabilitation coordinator at the Alaska Raptor Center. "She did great. She flew really well."
It was only the second time the raptor center has been able to release a snowy owl on the North Slope, the only area in the United States where the owls are known to breed. The last one was released near Prudhoe Bay in 2006. While other owls have been found outside of their customary habitat, they have been too weak or injured to return to the wild, Cedarleaf said.
During her captivity, Lumi was a popular attraction at the raptor center, where she ate up to 20 mice a day. Cedarleaf said she has a feisty quality that made her fun to watch. "She would swoop down over people's heads when she came to feed," she said.
Lumi was found in Yakutat last November, with serious burns to her left talon that appeared to be caused by an electrocution. It took her about three months to recuperate, although she is now missing one of her four talons on the left side. Despite the handicap, she should still be healthy enough to hunt, Cedarleaf said.
Even though she was fully recovered early in the year, the center decided to wait until summer to release her to give her the best opportunity for survival. Based on her wingspan, the four-pound beauty is probably only about a year old, said Denver Holt, a biologist with the Owl Research Center who was on hand for the release. He banded Lumi with a leg band so they can positively identify her in the future.
Snowy owls breed on the open tundra, dunes, marshes and fields of northern Alaska and northernmost Canada and migrate in the fall to southern Canada and the northern United States. Barrow is the only community in the United States where snowy owls are normally seen in the summer, Holt said. The bird's annual summer migration from northern Canada to the North Slope can take several days to complete.
Some show up south of the Arctic Circle in years where their food supply -- mostly lemmings -- is not adequate, Holt said.
Lumi was released in a protected biological reserve. Just a mile from the release site, a nesting pair of owls can be observed. The female was sitting on a nest while the male could be seen hunting from atop a power pole. Lumi will not be able to mate this year but could next spring if she survives.
Snowy owls are not considered endangered, but they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and cannot be hunted or captured by non-native people, Cedarleaf said.
The crowd viewing the release of the bird included a group of local students from a science camp, several media representatives and even a busload of tourists from the Top of the World Tundra Tours.
Introductory remarks were given by Charlotte Brower, a member of Alaska Airlines' Community Advisory Board and a Native community leader and Bill MacKay, the airline's senior vice president for the state of Alaska. MacKay is also a board member for the Raptor Center.
"We take our commitment to the state of Alaska very seriously and we're really pleased that we could play a hand in getting this beautiful bird back where she belongs, in the wild," MacKay said.
The Alaska Raptor Center is Alaska's foremost bald eagle hospital and educational center, as well as a popular visitor attraction. The center provides medical treatment to 100-200 injured bald eagles and other birds annually, releasing many of them back into the wild. Birds not well enough to survive in the wild live at the center and are used to educate 36,000 visitors and 15,000 schoolchildren per year. Alaska Airlines has sponsored the center since the early 1990s.
Note to media: High resolution photos of Lumi's release in Barrow, Alaska, are available for download in the airlines online image gallery at http://www.alaskasworld.com/newsroom/ASNews/photos.asp.