The critically injured snowy owl was in bad shape when it was brought in a box to the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia late last month.
A beautiful bird, with white feathers and yellow eyes, it had a broken and twisted left leg. Part of its left wing had been torn off. And it could barely lift its head.
It was about 8:30 p.m. Nov. 29, and the bird had just been found at Reagan National Airport, after the tower had reported a possible airplane “bird strike.”
And it was the latest sad encounter between these stunning Arctic visitors and the harsh trappings of modern human life.
Another snowy owl, which captivated the Washington area last year, was struck and injured by a bus and an SUV, and was later killed, probably by a car, after it was released in Minnesota.
The latest victim, which experts said was only a few months old, is thought to have been hit by an airliner.
Kent Knowles and Gabby Hrycyshyn, who run the conservancy in Falls Church, were there when the owl came in.
“When I picked up the bird, it could barely do anything,” Knowles, the conservancy president, said Wednesday. It had a “fracture of the left leg at what I would call the knee, turned 180 degrees.”
The section of the left wing was hanging only by a tendon, he said. “We went to general quarters, and did everything we could.”
“The internal damage from being probably hit by . . . a commercial jet going X miles an hour at National Airport” are impossible to know, he said.
They readjusted the owl’s damaged leg and wing, and gave it water orally to try to get it out of shock, but it was no use. “The bird died within an hour of when it got here,” he said.
“Do I like to lose?” Knowles said. “No, I do not like to lose. I knew when I picked it up, [it was] what they call DOA, as in dead on arrival. It just hadn’t died yet.”
The bird was about a foot and a half tall. Knowles said snowy owls frequent airports because the flat open space resembles their native Arctic tundra.
He said the snowy owls’ main food source is the Arctic lemming, which can fluctuate dramatically in population: “When the population crashes, ain’t no food, [the owls] got to go somewhere.”
That is what probably drove the owl south, he said, although it is quite early in the season for such an owl to appear locally. He said it was the only one he knew of that had been reported in the area.
“It was a beautiful, beautiful bird,” Hrycyshyn, the conservancy’s executive director, said. “He was gorgeous, but he was on his way out. They’re really wonderful animals to work with. They’re large and powerful in many ways, and then in other ways they’re incredibly fragile.”
An owl’s eyes are fixed, she said.
“They don’t have any eye muscles, so if they want to look left, right, or up or down, they have to move their whole head,” she said. “But when they’ve found prey, they are going to fix their head on that. Their body can swing back and forth but the head doesn’t move.”
Such focus can leave the bird unaware of a potential collision with another object.