DECATUR – Yeti the snowy owl loves to drink from a spray bottle.
At the Illinois Raptor Center on Wednesday, Yeti, who was celebrating her 13-week birthday, made her wishes very clear. When volunteer Heather Logan stopped pumping water into Yeti's beak, Yeti squawked and grabbed at the bottle.
“Just like Yeti,” said Jacques Nuzzo, program director, referring to the center's previous snowy owl, who was also named Yeti, and who succumbed to West Nile before a vaccination was available. This baby arrived last week, after a long car ride from Canada, and is such a calm and affectionate bird, like her predecessor, that she was named in honor of her. She, too, enjoyed drinking from a spray bottle.
After the first Yeti died, Nuzzo said, the center was without a snowy owl, leaving a hole in their education program offerings. He began using a snowy after the Harry Potter movies came out, because Harry's pet owl Hedwig was a snowy, and the movies were giving people the wrong ideas about what those owls are like.
Then, in a twist of fate, the center had a chance to get two more snowy owls, both about 2 years old, which Nuzzo, a "Star Wars" fan, has named Wampa and Tauntaun. Wampa, the male, has a broken beak and Tauntaun, a female, has had a partial wing amputation.
If Nuzzo and Executive Director Jane Seitz can work out the logistics, and if the proper permits can be obtained, the Illinois Raptor Center could embark on a snowy owl breeding program. The two potential lovebirds aren't old enough yet, anyway, so there's time to consider all the issues.
“We gotta get the permit and we have to get some music and candles, some snow on the ground,” Nuzzo joked. “We're not ready to breed yet, but the interesting part is, there's an obvious size difference between males and females. When we put them in, he was a bit terrified. Then about three days later, we came out here and they were sitting side by side on the perch.”
No other center in the United States is breeding snowy owls that Nuzzo knows of, though Yeti came from a facility in Ontario.
One problem is that these owls can produce as many as nine chicks per clutch, which is too many for the Illinois Raptor Center to keep. One of the decisions they'd have to make is what to do with the babies, whether they would find other centers to take them permanently, or a program that could prepare them to be released into the wild. Snowy owls are Arctic natives, and even Illinois is too warm for them.
A “hot” summer day in the far north where snowy owls live is about 35 degrees, so he'll have to take Wampa and Tauntaun inside on warm days to avoid stressing them. When he drove Yeti home, he had to put on a fleece jacket and turn on the air conditioning in his car to keep her comfortable.
“Snowies are incredible birds,” Nuzzo said. “Even in the wild. This is an Arctic tundra nesting bird, so even in the tundra they don't have a very long period. Snowies hatch and they're up and running in 16 days. In 28 days, they're darned near flying, and that's kind of outlandishly crazy for a bird to develop that quick, but the period they have to develop in is so short.”
Yeti is still very much a baby, but she's figuring out what her wings do and pretending to attack imaginary prey as she spends her days indoors, safe from mosquitoes, until she gets her West Nile inoculation.
Wampa and Tauntaun have already had theirs and are living in one of the Ameren Mew Project enclosures outdoors.
The center built the mews last winter and all the program birds are gradually moving into those, freeing up the mews on the other side of the complex for the hospital and rehabilitation tenants.
Eventually, Nuzzo said, they'd like to open the mews to visitors.