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An Unusual Jailbird Is Found at Rikers Island: A Snowy Owl

NEW YORK — It is not often that New Yorkers are graced with the sight of a snowy owl, especially in the middle of a July heat wave.

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Aaron Robertson
, New York Times

NEW YORK — It is not often that New Yorkers are graced with the sight of a snowy owl, especially in the middle of a July heat wave.

It is rarer still when that sighting occurs not in the grasslands of the Rockaways or Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, but in the decidedly less hospitable environment known as Rikers Island.

On Sunday, a New York City correction officer discovered a young, female snowy owl in a courtyard at Rikers, the 400-acre island that serves as the city’s principal jail complex.

The correction officer approached the owl carefully and managed to snare it in a box, according to Rita McMahon, a co-founder and director of the Wild Bird Fund, a nonprofit that provides medical care for migrant birds. The staff there named her Lorax, after a famous Dr. Seuss character. (The fictional Lorax is a being of indeterminate species, and certainly not an owl.)

No one is certain exactly how Lorax found her way into the Rikers courtyard. (It was initially thought that the owl was found in a laundry room.) “She might have chased something down there and then couldn’t get out,” the Wild Bird Fund wrote on Twitter.

There was also the possibility that someone had kept the owl as a pet — although doing so is illegal in the United States — and recently released it.

“People do think, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great to have Hedwig?'” McMahon said, referring to Harry Potter’s loyal friend and pet.

McMahon said Lorax was being tested for an infection known as “bumblefoot,” which can be caused by bacteria found on human skin. For that reason, she said, it is possible that Lorax was kept in a cage for some time.

Once Lorax gets her X-rays and blood work done, and when she is confirmed healthy, the Wild Bird Fund plans to send her to the Raptor Trust, an aviary rehabilitation center in New Jersey that prepares birds for release back into the wild.

Lorax is now the second snowy owl that the Wild Bird Fund has rehabilitated in the last year and a half. In 2017, a man who discovered an injured owl and took her home was persuaded by a friend to hand the owl over to the organization.

Snowy owl sightings are rare in New York, though they have been spotted more frequently in the last few years. The creatures are native to the Arctic tundra, which includes parts of northern Alaska, Canada and Siberia.

So how did Lorax make her way into New York City during a particularly sweltering season? There are only theories.

“We’re their Florida,” McMahon said. “That’s the only reason they come here.”

A few curious birders and conservationists believe Lorax may be the same snowy owl some people spotted last month on a roof in Owl’s Head Park.

David Barrett, a computer scientist who became interested in bird-watching in 2010, said Lorax has been the most exciting find for New York City bird-watchers in a long time. Barrett himself found a snowy owl on Randalls Island in early 2014.

“They usually come in November and they’ll linger around, particularly on the South Shore of Long Island. That’s a favorite spot for them.”

Barrett said Lorax may be what birders call a “vagrant,” a bird that ends up far from its usual migratory destination.

He suggested that some of the islands of New York City were habitable spots for snowy owls because they “tend to like flat, open areas” where they can hunt.

“I don’t think these owls like the 95-degree temperatures any more than we do.”

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