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D.C.'s snowy owl recovering well -- even playing

Friday - 2/21/2014, 7:18am  ET

snowy owl (Courtesy of City Wildlife)
The snowy owl that was hit by a bus in D.C. is recovering nicely. (Photo courtesy of City Wildlife)

WASHINGTON -- If there's a spa for snowy owls, it sounds like D.C.'s famous bird has landed there.

A rare snowy owl searching for food in the nation's capital in January was hit by a bus or SUV and was treated at the National Zoo before heading to City Wildlife in Northwest to rest and recuperate.

The female owl has received special living space, a diet tailored to her needs and wildlife rehabilitators doing all they can to get her migration-ready.

Last month, she was cleared to head to a second rehabilitation center, so that she could build up her strength for a trip back to the Arctic under her own power. The owl was taken to an undisclosed center where wildlife rehabilitators put a premium on limiting the owl's contact with humans so she could get back to being wild and prepared for "flight conditioning."

But Paula Goldberg, executive director of City Wildlife, says biologists and veterinarians think the owl's feathers might not be up to long flight. It turns out they're a little skimpy.

The rehabilitators may consider a sort of feather enhancement, something called "imping." Goldberg explains it's a procedure in which "feathers from other birds are attached to existing feathers - it's a little bit like applying false eyelashes," only this would be about function, not fashion.

In the meantime, the owl is in a large outdoor enclosure where she's able to hop from perch to perch. She even has a specially rigged pole that allows her to clamber to the ground.

Snowy owls tend to spend a lot of time on the Arctic tundra, so ground play is a good exercise, Goldberg says. One of the rehabilitators noticed footprints in the snow of the owl's outdoor enclosure and even a body print in the snow, "which means that this owl was actually playing in the snow last Friday," Goldberg says.

And the owl is eating well. She had taken food on her own while at City Wildlife. In her new facility, she's dining on four to five specially treated rats a day.

"These delicious rats are injected with fluids and medication," Goldberg says.

But whether the bird can be released is still not certain, and will continue to be a question until rehabilitators are certain she's up to the trek as well as a life in the wild.

In case the bird is not what Goldberg calls "releasable," they will find a home for her somewhere -- but it may not be D.C. It's too warm in this area, Goldberg explains.

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WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @WTOP on Twitter and on the WTOP Facebook page.

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