URBANA — It's been quite a journey for Qigiq, the injured snowy owl rescued from a field near Tolono last January and brought to the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic.
And it's not quite over yet.
This bird's caregivers say he's made an amazing recovery, and now they're going to give him his best chance to be released back into the wild by putting him on a plane to Alaska this weekend.
Qigiq (pronounced Kwig-ick) will be flown to the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka to undergo the kind of rehab that will get him ready to re-enter the wild after an injury, says Dr. Julia Whittington, director of the UI clinic and the surgeon who repaired this lucky owl's broken wing.
The Alaskan center will provide basic training for this owl to encourage him to fly more and build his stamina and assess his abilities to hunt and navigate obstacles, Whittington said.
And while Qigiq has begun to fly up and down in his smaller cage at the UI clinic, the Alaskan center will have much larger quarters for him to fly greater distances, she said.
"They already have a large, eagle-sized cage ready for him," she said.
Qigiq eyed Whittington as she stood nearby Thursday and didn't approach. He hasn't been tamed and doesn't recognize her, she said.
"What he would recognize is someone who brings his food," she added.
Snowy owls aren't common around here, but this past winter, the folks at Vet Med had reports of five of them. Whittington says the speculation is that some snowy owls migrated south for more territory and food.
Qigiq was observed for several days remaining in one spot in a field, and when he was brought to the wildlife clinic, he was in pretty bad shape, with the humerus bone in his left wing badly broken.
"When he came to us, he was very thin and very dehydrated," Whittington said.
About a year-and-a-half old now, he was likely hunting by the road when he was injured, and his injury may have been caused by being struck by a vehicle, she said.
Her immediate concerns for this owl: Could they stabilize him enough for him to survive, could they set the bone in a way that it would heal properly, and if it did, would he ever fly again?
"By golly, we've been able to do all three!" she added.
This owl got intensive care and his name (an Inuit word that means white hawk that flies in the sky) from Anne Rivas, a veterinary student and the wildlife clinic's co-manager. And Kim Knap, a rehabilitation therapist at the UI Veterinary Teaching Hospital, was instrumental in restoring the bird's critical wing extension, Vet Med officials said.
There are places closer than Alaska that could offer Qigiq the same kind of rehab he's going to get, Whittington says, but he's an arctic bird who's been through a lot of trauma. He'll have his best chances up north and away from the kinds of diseases for which he lacks natural immunity, such as West Nile Virus, she said.
In all, the cost of this owl's care has been $3,700 to date. The Wildlife Medical Clinic at the UI is non-profit and runs on donations.
If Qigiq is eventually unable to make it into the wild, the Alaska Raptor Center will seek permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep him as an education bird, Whittington said.
Vet Med would have loved to keep him as an education bird, but she and her colleagues are pinning their hopes on this chance for him to fly free again.
"He's been through so much," she says.