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Some sad owl news: The D.C. snowy owl has died

The snowy owl shortly after it was first spotted in D.C. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The snowy owl that captivated Washington earlier this year, first through its presence in downtown D.C. and then after it survived being hit by a D.C. bus and evaded D.C. police for two hours, has died in Minnesota.

While the precise cause of death is uncertain, the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center — which treated the owl and released it from owl rehab in April — said it appears that the owl was hit by a vehicle. The owl’s body was found on the shoulder of a Minnesota highway, not far from where the bird was released, according to the Raptor Center.

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.

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In January, the owl was spotted in the middle of downtown Washington and drew the attention of onlookers and passersby. But the owl, not content to simply lurk around McPherson Square, instead parked itself outside a nearby news organization.The owl perched on a ledge outside The Washington Post’s headquarters for several hours, drawing crowds to the sidewalk on L Street and earning a perfectly reasonable amount of media coverage.

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.

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The owl was taken to a D.C. rehabilitation facility and eventually was sent to Minnesota, where it received replacement wing feathers and finished its rehabilitation before being released along the northern Minnesota/Wisconsin border in April.

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.

Mark Berman covers national news for The Washington Post and anchors Post Nation, a destination for breaking news and stories from around the country.

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