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Snowy owls healing under wildlife rehabilitator’s care

  • A snowy owl gobbles down a hand-fed mouse at Tom Ricardi’s Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Tom Ricardi checks on a snowy owl he picked up in Hadley that couldn’t even stand. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The snowy owl Tom Ricardi picked up in Greenfield from behind the Recorder building stretches its wings while recovering in Conway at the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The snowy owl Tom Ricardi picked up in Greenfield in its enclosure in Conway at the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A trio of barred owls at the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Tom Ricardi with a great horned owl he uses for presentations at schools and other events at the Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ



Staff Writer
Monday, January 03, 2022

CONWAY — Two more snowy owls have been spotted in western Massachusetts since raptor rehabilitator Tom Ricardi captured an injured one in Greenfield on Nov. 24, leading him to believe a snowy owl “invasion” has begun.

Ricardi, who runs Conway’s Birds of Prey Rehabilitation Center, was recently called in to capture a malnourished snowy owl at the Lowe’s home improvement store in Hadley. Then a few days later, Ricardi responded to a call in Pittsfield when a resident reported seeing another snowy owl atop a tall building. Although Ricardi said sightings, while relatively uncommon in the area, are “not unusual,” such a high volume of owls likely indicates a local population boom that occurs once every handful of years.

Ricardi currently has three snowy owls at his tucked-away North Poland Road sanctuary: the Greenfield owl, the Hadley owl and another that was hit by a car in Whately two years ago.

While Ricardi is no stranger to the species, western Massachusetts residents are typically less familiar. The snowy owl, a species listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, typically ranges from Canada up through the Arctic Circle, with primary breeding populations existing only in the northernmost reaches of its habitat. Usually, Ricardi said, when owls travel as far south as Massachusetts, they come in search of prey and choose to stay close to the ocean.

“It’s not unusual to have them this far inland,” Ricardi said, “but usually you see them along the coast.”

While Ricardi, who said he captured around 145 birds in need of rehabilitation this year, downplayed the notion that these snowy owl sightings were unheard of, he said the number of owl calls he’s received in 2021 has been remarkably high.

“This year, it seems like I’m getting a call every week,” he said. “It seems like snowy owls are showing up everywhere.”

That raises the question of why they are here. Although Ricardi has heard from other experts that the owls likely came due to a lack of food in their usual reaches, he has observed differently. He believes a boom of lemmings and other rodent prey in the owls’ usual northernmost habitats has accounted for a boom in the owl population.

“Sometimes, there’s so many young, the adults push them out,” Ricardi said, citing the fact that 90% of the snowy owls he’s captured over the years have been “first-year birds” to support his hypothesis.

Ricardi labeled the boom an “invasion,” a term used by experts when the population sees a sharp increase outside its usual reaches. He called this a “regular phenomenon,” having most recently observed such an invasion in the mid-2010s.

Ricardi said the high percentage of injuries among snowy owls he’s called in to check on is a result of combining youthful inexperience with urbanized terrain. Since the owls are cast from their homes before they learn how to properly hunt, Ricardi said, they end up colliding with vehicles and buildings as they try to navigate.

How are the owls doing?

Ricardi said that, fortunately, the owl spotted in Pittsfield didn’t appear injured or unwell. He didn’t capture it.

“It seemed to be OK,” he said. “It was on top of a high building. I chose to leave it alone.”

The Hadley owl, a 1-year-old female that Ricardi captured at roughly one-third of its ideal 48-ounce weight, is currently recovering from its near-death condition.

“It was so weak, it couldn’t fit on a perch. It couldn’t stand,” Ricardi said. “I think if it went another day, it wouldn’t have survived.”

Ricardi said the owl, inhibited as a hunter due to a possible ligament tear in its wing, couldn’t hold any food at first.

“I would force-feed it egg yolk (mixed with sugar) … but within a half hour, she would throw it up,” he said.

Now, the owl is eating seven to eight mice per day. Ricardi hopes she will be well enough to release in spring.

As for the owl found in Greenfield behind the Greenfield Recorder office on Nov. 24, the 1-year-old male that weighed under 1 pound upon capture is now nearly up to its ideal weight of 3 pounds. Ricardi said the bird is still “favoring its right wing” as it heals from a potential tendon injury in its left wing.

“It’s eating real good and it’s doing fine in its enclosure,” Ricardi said.

He hopes to release the owl by March as initially planned.

Ricardi expressed gratitude for both the South Deerfield Veterinary Clinic’s voluntary assistance and the generosity of the community. In addition to a slew of grateful Christmas cards, Ricardi said he’s received around $2,000 in donations from locals following the initial Recorder story. “Unbelievable,” Ricardi said. “Every day, I get two or three cards. ... There’s some lovely people in the area, that’s for sure.”

Ricardi can be reached at 413-369-4072 for donations and raptor rehabilitation inquiries.