[CT Birds] Snowy Owl Discussion

kmueller at ntplx.net kmueller at ntplx.net
Thu Dec 5 17:45:04 EST 2013

I hesitated to post regarding this topic since I didn't want to come  
across as insensitive or not caring. But I have a different opinion  
regarding the great gift that we have been given; the Snowy Owl  
irruption. We all want these birds to survive, be healthy and thrive.  
But the reality is, many won't make it regardless how careful and  
caring we are. Of course we shouldn't harass them or cause them any  
stress at all! But Mother Nature has a selection process, and it will  
not allow every Owl to survive no matter what we do. The environment  
can only handle so many birds of prey. Remember, these Owls are also  
putting extra stress' on the resident Redtail Hawks and Great Horned  
Owls. The land will only yield so much prey. Snowy Owls don't feed  
entirely on small Quadrupeds, they also feed on other birds. I have  
read a few reports and blogs about these Owls feeding on Gulls, ducks  
and one who has mastered hunting Ruddy Ducks!

I also read a few reports where some want to feed the Owls dead rats  
and mice, and someone suggested importing dead squirrels and rats from  
the South and feed them to the Owls. Although everyone's hearts are in  
the right place, this concerned me. Offering dead rodents from other  
environments and geo-locations can and probably will create a larger  
problem which is the spread of parasites, bacteria and disease.

The best support you can give the Owls besides their space, is to  
watch them carefully and be prepared to get sick or weakened Owls to a  
Rehab facility or a Vet! That will be their best chance. As much as we  
want to "help" the Owls we all have to realize that a percentage will  
just not make it, and that is a reality. If anyone finds a weakened or  
a deceased Owl, lets not start blaming anyone. If you want to blame  
someone, than blame Mother Nature, its her selection process!

I have a friend who is a renowned Veterinarian.....who also happens to  
be one of my bird carving students. He partnered with another  
Vet/Biologist and they studied Thick-billed Parrots in the Sierra  
Madre of Mexico...the same area run by drug cartels that was mentioned  
by Tim Gallagher in his book "Imperial Dreams" a book he wrote about  
the Imperial Woodpecker. I wrote John the other night and shared my  
concerns about the Snowy Owl irruption, not about the irruption  
itself, but about the human interaction and "interference" with this  
natural phenomenon. I want to share part of John's response to me:

Hi Keith,  This irruption phenomenon is pretty interesting.  I was  
reading a few comments by Dr. Pat Redig at the University of  
Minnesota's Raptor Rehabilitation Center.  Pat is a well known raptor  
veterinarian, and was heavily involved with the Exxon Valdez oil spill  
and all the bald eagles that were affected by the spill.  Pat said  
that some of the more recent irruptions were due to high numbers of  
lemmings in the Arctic in the Spring which led to higher nest success  
for the snowy owls, thus putting greater pressure on the newly fledged  
juveniles for finding food once winter conditions arrived.  The  
juveniles don't compete as well as adults, thus pushing them south in  
search of food.  Many of the young birds presented to the Raptor  
Center were injured from being hit by cars or trains because they were  
too weak to fly from cars, etc.  Others were loaded with avian lice  
and weak, but responded well to treating for lice and nutritional  

Bottom line is that higher than normal lemming numbers in Spring has  
been leading to greater nest success, and ultimately that nest success  
puts extreme pressure on the ecosystem's food supply.  Thus the  
desperation move south.  As you well know, the carrying capacity of  
the environment can only handle X number of predatory birds based on  
prey availability in the winter.  Dr. Redig's take on higher numbers  
of birds entering the population sure makes sense to me.  The  
starvation rate of these birds is nature's way to correct oversupply.   
Yes, for we humans it is very difficult to witness.  If terribly  
weakened birds are captured, they are best taken to a rehab facility  
to give them any chance to survive.

I agree with you that bringing rodents from the South to feed the owls  
is a great way to spread parasitism and possible viral/bacterial  
problems from one geographic region to another region with a host of  
animals with immune systems naive to the new parasites, bacteria, or  
viruses.  My friend, Dr. Noel Snyder theorizes that the introduction  
of chickens with exotic Newcastle disease was the cause for   
extinction of the Carolina Parakeet.  The parakeet was attracted to  
roosting in barns in the South which also housed chickens.  Exposure  
to chickens could have led  these communal birds being infected by the  
highly contagious virus brought to the US from England,  thus wiping  
out entire flocks of Carolina Parakeets.  Interesting food for thought.

This situation reminds me of the mountain lion-Kaibab deer balance in  
the Grand Canyon area.  When mountain lions were hunted heavily, the  
deer populations expanded past the ecosystem's carrying capacity.   
Thus the deer population suddenly crashed due to starvation, disease,  
and parasitism.  Very similar scenario in a different group of  
vertebrates. Nature seems to be making a natural correction in the  
snowy owl's population cycle.

I hope this helps,

Keith Mueller

Quoting Dave Provencher <hikerbirder at gmail.com>:

> Two thoughts: First, I'm fairly confident no one on this list wants to
> negatively affect any owls, whether they're primarily a birder or a
> photographer. I've seen birds "pushed" too much in either instance, but the
> individuals who do this are in the minority in our community. It should
> also be noted that the people who do push birds around almost always
> believe they are doing no harm (too which I disagree). My hope is our
> community respects these birds and tries to not have a harmful affect on
> them. I do not believe testy messages on this list are productive and they
> often are inaccurate (usually innocently so).
> Second: Irruptive migration by birds of prey is always accompanied by a
> degree of mortality. This can't be helped and I believe shouldn't be
> helped. The birds that show up in our area are almost always young and
> inexperienced. They need to learn to fend for themselves under very tough
> conditions. Some will succeed and some will fail. Those that succeed will
> be smarter stronger individuals that should help the species stay healthier
> overall. The best thing we can do is not add another degree of difficulty
> to the equation by repeatedly flushing birds while they're in the process
> of learning how to survive their "irruption" here. Most birders and nature
> photographers are very conscientious about their behavior, and we are much
> better at respecting these birds needs than most other people who are
> ignorant of the affects their behavior on wildlife.
> Dave
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