Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Two Sides to Snowy Owl Tale

Snowy owls, birds made familiar by Hedwig in the Harry Potter Series, represent confusion about a rapidly changing world.  This beautiful, mysterious visitor to Kansas from the North Country fascinates and concerns me.

Part of the snowy owl’s intrigue is its appearance.  That ghost-like plumage, size—two feet in height and a wing span of five feet, those piercing eyes and amazing ability to seemingly rotate its head 360 degrees (actually it’s about a 270 degree rotation), combine to make this a movie-star worthy bird.

Normally at home in the arctic and tundra regions of Alaska, Canada, and Northern Eurasia, these birds do occasionally make southern appearances.  These usually occur every three to four years, usually limited to northern border states of the U.S.   What makes their appearance unique this year is their numbers and distances they are traveling. 

Most articles I read attribute this unusual behavior to an arctic lemming die off due to Global Warming, words designed to inspire fear.  Hardly worth the long flight to our region if we can’t supply their only food source, it made me wonder what else these aerodynamic wonders eat since we don’t have lemmings in Kansas.

What I discovered is snowy owls eat not just lemmings, but varied small and large rodents, which Kansas has aplenty.  We have gophers, voles, prairie dogs, packrats, squirrels, and rabbits to name a few.  In addition, those white ghosts snack on foxes and raccoons as well as birds, including other owl species.  We have those as well so snowy owls surviving the journey in hunting condition will find food.

While reading, I found an article in the Montana Missoulian offering another viewpoint regarding this year’s snowy owl invasion.  According to Denver Holt, Director of the Owl Research Institute, “Food figures into it, but if you look at their plumage, you can tell they’re coming off a very good food year somewhere.”  Considering it more likely that good feeding turned into good breeding, he thinks an expanded population might be branching out in search of more to eat.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns.  According to Mike Rader, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks employee, five dead snowy owls he delivered to KU for further study were underweight and lice infested, neither signs of health.  He mentioned those taken to rehabilitators are in poor condition and doubts they will survive a return to native territory.

Denver Holt’s statement regarding snowies he studies in Montana suggests a good breeding season produced so many young they fanned out to find ample food sources.  It makes sense young birds settling in Montana and North Dakota didn’t have to fly so far and would be less stressed than fellow creatures traveling an extra 800 miles to Kansas.
I am not a scientist, and I don’t have answers to questions generated by these birds’ presence. However, I am glad to see a reason for this visitation might be a good feeding and breeding year in the arctic rather than consequences of global warming.  Like most natural mysteries, even more time and more study will not provide every answer to questions humans have about their world.   However, we need to look for more than one possible answer when we have those questions.

Photo courtesy of Mike Rader

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