Snowy owls are native to the Arctic tundra far north of Iowa, so to see one here is an unusual site and a thrill for any bird enthusiast. Yet the last couple of years the nomadic snowy-white birds have been seen in Northeast Iowa on occasion when a lack of prey have forced the owls further south – particularly in winters like the one just ending.
A Hawkeye woman, visiting the city cemetery in West Union last April, discovered a snowy owl that appeared to have starved to death. Kathleen Traeger reported her find to the cemetery sexton, and that snowy owl along with another found south of Castalia eventually ended up in the hands of local taxidermist Dan Burkhart, of Wildfeathers Taxidermy.
Burkhart said as he disassembled the birds it was apparent both had experienced a tough winter with not enough prey available to sustain them. After perishing, the female owl was unusable in its entirety, but Burkhart preserved one complete wing span, and the beautifully downy feet of the bird.
Conservationist Dawn Amundson is excited to have parts of the Snowy Owl to use as 'hands-on' tools in her classroom presentations at schools around the area. The other owl – a male – was mounted in a flying position and will hang at the Gilbertson Nature Center, Elgin. Beyond the species' beauty, Amundson said owls are fascinating creatures. The Snowy Owl, sometimes classified with the Great Horned species, could read a newspaper at a distance of a football field's length.
But it's the bird's fabulous night vision that results in the disadvantage of being unable to move its eyes side to side, using instead, 14 bones in it's neck to be able to turn 270 degrees.
Burkhart said the owl's cone-like eye sockets were interesting to work with, but perhaps their preservation wasn't as tedious as soaking the bird's feathers in six or seven baths of Dawn dishwashing liquid to cut through dirt, grease, blood and other stains.
Amundson said that while the bird is an unusual sight in Iowa, it's even more difficult to spot because of it's white coloring, which allows it to blend in with snow. This past winter, Amundson was driving her daughter to Valley Schools near Elgin when the pair saw a Snowy Owl perched on a telephone pole. It was the only time for such a sighting by Amundson in any recent years.
The Snowy Owl is the official bird of Quebec and like all birds of prey, is protected by the federal migratory act. Gilbertson Nature Center holds federal and state permits in order to have the bird and many other wild animal mounts on display as part of its education program. Gilbertson Nature Center is open by appointment during the school year, or from 7 to 11 a.m., Wednesday through Sunday after Memorial Day. Call 563-426-5740 for more information.