The owl, a female, was identified by a bird band placed on its leg before the bird was released from rehab.
“We were saddened to hear it,” said Julia Ponder, executive director of the Raptor Center. “So much went into getting this bird back into the wild.”
However, the owl did not die recently, she said. The owl was out of rehab for at least a month, hunting and flying successfully, when it was found near the highway, Ponder said.
The owl was found on the side of the road and turned it over to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, where the body was frozen. It takes a little while for the laboratory that bands a bird to be notified, so the Raptor Center only found out about the bird’s death recently, she said.
Now the Raptor Center is working on having the owl shipped to them for a necropsy to try and determine exactly what happened. Ponder said that while they believe a vehicle hit the owl, broken bones or other signs of trauma could help make the final determination.
But the owl’s story soon took an unexpected turn. The owl was apparently hit by a bus and an SUV several days later. This part isn’t such a turn, because as experts point out, buses and cars don’t really coexist that well with birds and other animals. Yet this owl not only survived, but it went on to lead D.C. police on a two-hour chase through downtown before officers were able to capture it.
At the time, the Raptor Center was optimistic about what would happen to the owl, which it said was in excellent condition. The owl was released into what was known to be a favorable habitat for such owls and could make its way north, the center said.
The owl’s track record does not suggest it simply had a habit of flying into vehicles, according to Ponder. Areas alongside highways often feature regularly-mowed grass and pedestrians discarding food and garbage, which attract rodents. These rodents, in turn, attract owls and other raptors. Northern owls like the snowy that entranced Washington don’t have any experience flying near cars or windows or people, so they simply don’t recognize them as threats.
“It’s not that this bird had a history of being hit by cars,” Ponder said. “It probably just didn’t have the street smarts to dodge cars.”
Let us remember the owl not as it is now, but as it was: endlessly entertaining crowds of people who had never before laid eyes on a snowy owl.
This story has been updated.