By Karla Bloem
Executive Director of the
International Owl Center
Five snowy owls in Brice Prairie. Two in Winona. Another in Rochester. Another by Trempealeau. And probably many more I don’t know about. It’s safe to say that the big wave of snowy owls moving south this winter has blanketed our area.
Why does this happen? People used to think it was due to a shortage of lemmings, the primary food of snowy owls, in their arctic home. With decades of research in Barrow, Alaska, and Bylot Island in Nunavut, Canada, it is becoming apparent that these irruptions (large, southward movements) of snowy owls are caused by baby booms, which means an abundance of lemmings up north.
The breeding cycle of snowy owls revolves entirely around lemmings. Lots of lemmings = lots of eggs laid and surviving babies. Few lemmings = no breeding at all that year. But lots of babies need lots of food, and they apparently need to move south to find enough for everyone to eat once the kids grow up. That’s when those of us farther south are blessed with snowy owls right out our back doors, most of them youngsters.
But young snowy owls have likely never seen human beings before coming south. And they aren’t used to trees since they don’t exist in their natal tundra home. Because of this they can behave in unexpected ways. They perch on the ground or very low. They allow people to get close (at least until they figure out that they should avoid people.)
A few snowy owls that make the trek south don’t find enough food along the way and are starving by the time they show up. Weak birds perch on the ground and allow people to get close, just like many healthy snowy owls, so it’s hard to know which owls need help and which are OK.
One of the snowy owls seen in Winona showed up at Jefferson Elementary School the afternoon of December 6. Since EVERYONE loves to see snowy owls, people (lots of people!) got close and it was determined it would be better for the owl to be moved to Prairie Island, away from people. The next morning it was found dead. The owl was brought to the International Owl Center and found to be very thin, with a small wound on one of its feet. Both probably contributed to its demise, as well as the stress of being handled and so many people.
How can you enjoy snowy owls without stressing them, since some will be in less than ideal body condition when they arrive? Here are some tips:
• Give them space! It’s hard to give an exact distance to stay away from owls since every bird and every situation is unique. Err on the side of caution. If the bird is staring at you, you’re too close. If it stands up straight and quickly starts looking around like it might fly, you’re too close. If it flies as you approach, you were DEFINITELY too close. Don’t go closer just because other people are closer than they should be. Stay back and set a good example.
Your goal is to have the owl ignore you. Be the person who got a mediocre photo because you didn’t get too close rather than someone who bumped it to fly to get a pretty picture to post on Facebook. Snowy owls are normally trying to sleep during the day. Let them. Go out at dusk if you want to see them fly and get active.
• Let them find their own food. Do not offer mice or other prey for them to eat. Owls are opportunistic, and they will take an easy meal. They also learn where easy meals come from quickly and some will start to follow people looking for a handout if they are repeatedly fed. This is dangerous, as they often get hit by cars (as happened to the other snowy owl in Winona…probably not baited but now flattened fauna on Riverview Drive.) If an owl is starving, feeding it can actually kill it since starving birds are usually also dehydrated and their digestive tracts are shutting down.
If you find a snowy owl in need of help, contact the International Owl Center, the Coulee Region Humane Society in La Crosse, or The Raptor Center in St. Paul.
• Respect private property, fences, and signs. This should go without saying, but many otherwise rational and respectful people do dumb things when something cool like a snowy owl is involved.
• Think about if it’s safe to share the location of a snowy owl publicly. Will the bird be mobbed by photographers and other people? Is it likely people will trespass on private property to see it? Or damage vegetation? Will it cause traffic or parking issues?
• Avoid flash photography and flashlights as it gets darker. A fill flash during the day at a distance is OK, but a flash to their eyes as they are adapting to the darkness will impact their vision for several minutes.
• Leave your dog at home. Owls do not like dogs.
• Move at a slower than normal pace and keep your voice down when you are close. Owls don’t like quick movements or sudden loud noises, so be sure that children are given good direction before they go to see an owl. Yes, snowy owls do hang out at airports with very loud jets taking off and landing nearby, but planes on runways are more predictable than young children running around and shouting. Remember, the goal is to minimize stress to the owl.
• When safe to do so, view the owl from inside your car, using the car as a blind.
• Be respectful of other people. You aren’t the only person who wants to see or photograph the owl. Make sure others are able to see, let other people look through your spotting scope or binoculars, and keep roads open for normal traffic flow.
To learn more about snowy owl movements, check out Project Snowstorm’s website: www.projectsnowstorm.org. Project Snowstorm is a network of snowy owl researchers who have placed transmitters on snowy owls that have come south the past few years. Their website and blog show travels of individual birds and the latest news.
To touch a snowy owl wing and tail, see live Eurasian Eagle, American Barn, and great horned owls up close and to learn more about owls in general, visit the International Owl Center in Houston, Minn. It’s the only all-owl education center in the United States, and is open Friday through Monday.