Manitobans love their snowy owls. The distinctive yellow-eyed, black-beaked white birds are not exactly a common feature as they tend to stay and breed in the sparsely-populated northeastern part of the province.
But come winter, the territorial birds of prey will chase their youngest or weakest away from the habitat, forcing them to escape south for better chances of hunting the lemmings and small rodents they eat.
Some will fly hundreds of kilometres in their search for food, and by the time they get down south, many are starving and have become so weak they are no longer able to fly to hunt and feed themselves.
Spike in starving snowy owls
Wildlife Haven, a charity that has been rehabilitating injured, sick and orphaned wildlife from Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario since 1984, has seen a particularly high number of snowy owls come into its volunteers’ care at the end of 2015.
“This winter was very unusual,” says Judy Robertson, Wildlife Haven’s vice-president who links the spike to a snowy owl population boom up north. “We received a total of 19 snowy owls between October and the end of December, and unfortunately many were so weak when they came in that they passed away within 24 hours. This was truly heart breaking.”
Six birds made it through though, thanks to the loving care and patience of volunteers at the Île des Chênes rehabilitation centre. The snowy owls were first given a liquid diet, with solid food being slowly re-introduced by volunteers behind a curtain to limit human contact.
More than 1,700 wild animals are cared for at Wildlife Haven every year — these can include anything from owls, eagles and ducklings to foxes, raccoons and beavers. And today, the little patients are being treated in a decommissioned dairy barn, a cramped place that Wildlife Haven’s 90 volunteers hope to move out of soon.
Looking for a new home for 1,700+ animals
“The Wildlife Haven has been looking for a permanent home for virtually its entire existence. Our current location isn’t working anymore,” notes Judy, whose organization relies entirely on generosity from supporters. “We’ve started building our future home and we need funding to finish the project.”
Next year, the charity will be able to move to a brand new hospital and education centre built on 18 acres of land adjacent to Station 41 on TransCanada’s Mainline natural gas pipeline system. TransCanada, already a longtime supporter of Wildlife Haven, facilitated a 50-year community land lease with the non-profit organization and contributed $500,000 to its $2.5 million capital fundraising campaign.
“This new facility is going to be just amazing for Manitoba’s wildlife. It will be cleaner and bigger. We’ll be able to take more patients and give our amazing volunteers better working conditions.”
In the meantime, these volunteers continue to work tirelessly to rescue and nurse to health distressed wild life. On April 5, they released the last snowy owl rescued this past winter.
“There is no thank you from these creatures,” Judy says. “They just take off. They never look back. But for me that’s thank you enough to be able to know they can do what they need to do.”