For the Birds Radio Program: Boreal Owl

Original Air Date: March 3, 1989

Why are so many Boreal Owls turning up dead, and why are they drawn to houses? (4:00)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Boreal Owl)

This winter has been a hard one for the Boreal Owl. This tiny northern bird of prey is dying in big numbers in the Northland. Last Monday Kathleen Littlefield found one dead under a 60 year old spruce in her backyard. She brought it to me, and I’m keeping it in a freezer until I can get it to the DNR’s Steve Wilson over in Ely. Steve is studying Boreals, and probably knows more about this elusive species of the deep Northwoods than anyone else around. As of last Monday he’s received or heard of at least 25 dead Boreals this winter–and who knows how many have died that he hasn’t heard about.

There isn’t a simple explanation for the dying ones this year. The one I have feels like it starved—the sternum and ribs are jutting out terribly. It’s easy to conclude that the deep and persistent snow cover has made mice difficult to catch, but then again, Boreal Owls are birds of the far north, where deep snow is normal. Some people are blaming the condition of the snow—whether it’s too powdery, keeping the mice safely beneath, or too crusty, keeping the owls from breaking through. Other theories to explain the die-off include this year’s shortage of winter finches for supplemental food, the severe weather throughout February, and over-production of young during last year’s mild summer. Steve will be spending the next months studying all these possibilities and more, trying to find out which factors may be the most critical ones.

Steve did tell me an interesting fact—most of the dead birds were found right outside houses. After I talked to him, I sat down with Arthur Cleveland Bent’s Life History and learned that Boreal Owls have a long history of association with human structures. Bent’s account was published in 1938, back when this species was called Richardson’s Owl. An A.W. Anthony wrote: “On March 3, 1905, a Richardson’s Owl was caught on the Agapuk River in Alaska. It had taken up its quarters in an abandoned igloo, and when driven into the glare of the outer world was confused, and after a short flight returned to the igloo and submitted without protest to capture. From an inspection of several deserted igloos in the interior of the peninsula, I concluded this species was a regular winter resident and made general use of these shelters.”

Bent’s account also quotes William Brewster, who wrote in 1925: “Several farmers living near the southern end of Lake Umbagog have assured me that an unfamiliar little Owl resembling the Saw-whet but ‘a size or two larger,’ sometimes enters their barns in midwinter and occasionally remains in them for weeks at a time when the cold is severe and the ground deeply buried in snow.”

So it’s possible that these secretive little visitors from the northern wilderness regularly come to houses.

After feeling the bare ribs of the little owl in my freezer, I’d be easily tempted to go out and buy some mice if I found a hungry Boreal Owl in my own back yard, in spite of the fact that my sympathies are normally as much with the prey as the predator. If you find an owl still alive in your yard, you might try giving it some live food–otherwise, don’t come too close. Boreal Owls are notoriously reluctant to fly away in daylight, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re tame–approaching them may dangerously stress them out. If you find a dead Boreal Owl, please give me a call at home or make sure Steve Wilson gets it. It’s sad enough that so many of these birds are dying this year—the least we can do is learn as much as we can in hopes of preventing future disasters.

(Recording of a Boreal Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”