Garnering the attention of a starlet stepping from a limo on Oscars night, a rare snowy owl rehabilitated after being struck by an SUV eight weeks ago was released into the wild today and floated northeast over the tree tops of a DuPage County Forest Preserve near Wayne.
More than two dozen onlookers – nearly all taking photos or video of the liftoff – gathered in the freezing drizzle to watch the striking bird emerge from a crate at 11:03 a.m. in Pratt's Wayne Woods.
"It was exciting," said Alicia Seghi, wildlife keeper at Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn, where the bird was brought back to health. "I wasn't exactly sure what she was going to do, but she gave a pretty good show. She was ready to take off and do her thing in the wild."
The raptor is one lucky bird. Struck by an SUV traveling about 55 miles per hour shortly before 5 a.m. Nov. 30 in rural Hampshire, the raptor became wedged in the grill of the truck. The driver, unaware the bird was caught on the front of his vehicle, drove another five miles to work before noticing the owl's wing stretching over the hood of his car.
Hampshire Police officer Pete Velez, called to the parking lot, boxed the bird then took it to the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, where staff treated the raptor's fractured clavicle and ribs, injured eye and bruised muscles.
On Monday, she appeared to take flight with ease and in a few seconds disappeared in the gray clouds. One of the keys to that success was her treatment at Willowbrook's raptor flight facility, one of the Midwest's most comprehensive rehabilitation centers. Among other features, the $450,000 facility includes a protected 100-yard oval that allows recuperating birds to build their strength and stamina.
Velez, who said he's loved animals since childhood, stood silently away from the assembled viewers and watched the bird take off. Then he did the same.
"I’m very happy," Velez said, moments before trudging back to his car. "I'm glad to see that the bird was able to fly off like it did. Man, that was nice."
Growing numbers of snowy owls, made popular recently through the Harry Potter films, are being seen in Chicago this winter primarily because of a food shortage in the Arctic Circle, the raptors' breeding grounds.