Traveling when you are an owl is usually just a matter of taking flight. But Lumi, a snowy owl at the Alaskan Raptor Center, will be hopping an Alaska Airlines flight to get home. There’s lots to do before the 2-day trip.
Step one will be catching Lumi. She’s in a long cage about the size of a racket ball court. A team of four are all are wearing long, leather coats and gloves.
“ Sometimes they get grabby and they’ll grab your hand or grab your arm, so this just protects us from getting injured by the birds,” says Jen Cedarleaf.
It’s Cedarleaf and Victoria Vausburg’s job to take care of Lumi and the other birds here at the Raptor Center in Sitka.
“We’re just going to catch her by tiring her out basically. She flies really well, so it would be hard to catch her,” says Cedarleaf.
Lumi swoops from her perch in the corner. Her wings make power downward strokes. She flies back and forth across the long cage and she’s getting a little too close to my microphone. Lumi runs into the fuzzy end of the microphone raised in the air. Just a few short minutes later, she’s tired and takes a break on the ground. The team throws a blanket over her like a net.
“That wasn’t too bad,” says Cedarleaf.
Her feathers are mostly, white with the tips dusted brown and her eyes are bright, golden-yellow orbs. Her head is the only part of her body still mobile. Cederleaf passes Lumi to Don, a volunteer from Chicago. He now has a tight hold on her. She’s facing away from him but arches her head straight up and nips fold of his jacket and hisses.
Next they strap her feet with velcro and swaddle her in a neoprene suit.
“We call it a scuba suit,” says Cedarleaf.
They gently lay her in on the scale to be weighed,
“Two point zero five pounds,” says Vosburg.
Veterinarian, Victoria Vosburg, draws blood from under Lumi’s wing and then puts it in the centrifuge on the counter.
“Her blood looks really good. No anemia, no signs of infections. Just a very healthy bird,” says Vosburg.
Last but not least, they give her a manicure. Not to make her prettier, but more dangerous to her prey.
“When birds are kept in captivity, their talons and beaks tend to overgrow because they’re not doing what they would normally do in the wild,” says Cedarleaf. “We want to make sure a bird has every possible advantage when it goes into the wild, it’s hunting weapons are ready to go…and sharp…and deadly,” adds Vosburg.
Her claws are sharp to begin with and the manicure thins them down to freshly sharpened hooks.
“ We had to amputate one of her talons, but she should be able to hunt just fine,” says Cedarleaf.
Now Lumi is gussied up and given a clean bill of health. “She get’s whole mice, with a little bit of vitamin. We’re just going to put this in her crate so she has something to munch on while she’s on the road,” says Vosburg.
The sides are covered with cardboard so it‘s nice and dark in the crate for Lumi’s long trip to the northern slope. “We want to keep her as calm as possible and being in the dark pretty much shuts down her senses and so she should be very comfortable hopefully,” says Cedarleaf.
Adult owls eat about 5 lemmings- little mouse-like rodents- each day. Snowy owls pair up and usually mate for life. Females like Lumi, make their nests on the treeless tundra. When food is scarce, they won’t lay eggs and sometimes end up leaving their Arctic climate to migrate south.
“Last year they didn’t even nest because the lemming population was so low, so there were no chicks last year,” adds Cedarleaf.
Don, the volunteer, has had a tight grip on Lumi for about a half-hour. He now carries her over the crate and puts her in and shuts the door.
“Well I hope it goes up there and just learns how to be an owl. Obviously it’s too late to nest this year, but I hope Lumi get’s back into the swing of life in the wild and remembers how to hunt and remembers where to go,” says Vosburg.
Lumi was banded and released Monday around 4PM just outside Barrow. As a small crowd watched, she flew away and didn’t stop.
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