For the Birds Radio Program: Snowy Owls

Original Air Date: Jan. 27, 1989

Snowy Owls in winter can have some strange encounters with chimneys.

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Snowy Owl

(Recording of a Snowy Owl)

There aren’t many more thrilling sights in the frozen Northland than that of a Snowy Owl sitting on a fence post or tree stump, watching you with calm yellow eyes. These welcome visitors from the tundra are virtually never seen in trees—their world is above the tree line, and when they come down to our world they search for roosting sites as similar to the flat tundra as they can find. You’re far more likely to spot one sitting on a billboard or a grain elevator in the open harbor area than in a spruce tree in the north woods.

Snowy Owls used to be fairly abundant in the Duluth Harbor, numbering about 15-20 birds in a typical winter. But since the amount of grain shipped out of Duluth began decreasing, the rat population has been dropping, and continued rat poison projects have seriously limited the food available for Snowies until their winter population in the harbor has dropped to just one. There have been a few reports of Snowy Owls in open country, where a good look at one is far more satisfying than seeing one sitting on a grain elevator with a cigarette billboard in the background, but birders miss the days when we could drive down to the harbor and see one whenever we wanted.

Snowy Owls are the heaviest of all the owls—females may weigh as much as 3 1/2 or even 4 pounds. In their Arctic home they eat mostly mice and lemmings, and during the periodic crashes in lemming populations Snowy Owls often come south in huge numbers. During these flight years they have also been known to alight on ships in the Atlantic 200-500 miles off shore. They have no real enemies in the Arctic, and their trusting nature gets many of them shot and killed in the United States. Of course Snowy Owls are protected by state and federal law, but ignorance, fear, and mean-spiritedness are dangerously common in human beings, and so they are still persecuted by some.

In spite of the fact that Snowies mainly eat small rodents, they can’t live by mice and lemmings alone. In the far north they occasionally take coots, crows, and other similarly sized birds. In downtown Madison, Wisconsin, one used to sit picturesquely on the ice’s edge on Lake Monona, and would horrify the businessmen watching it when it would suddenly take off and grab a duck for lunch. Snowies have also been known to wade right into open water and grab fish in their talons. They are opportunists, and their scavenging habits occasionally get them hit by cars.

David Evans, a prominent raptor authority who does much of his research in Duluth, has studied the owls in the Duluth harbor for many years. A few years ago, when he had funding to mark several birds with radio transmitters, he suddenly lost the signal of one bird. In circling the area, he bagan to pick up the signal again, but searched for two days until he finally pinpointed the bird’s location, inside a locked warehouse. The owl had apparently fallen down the chimney. Evans got permission to go inside, and then to tear down a wall covering access to the chimney, and found the owl, still alive in a pile of dead pigeon remains. After feeding it for a day or two, he released it to the wild. Banding and marking birds often yields valuable information to help bird populations, and in many cases like this one, directly helps individual birds, too.

(Recording of a Snowy Owl)This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”