For the Birds Radio Program: Boreal Owls

Original Air Date: March 22, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about the winter of ‘96 and its devastating effect on owls. 4:03

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This has been one of the saddest winters I’ve had in the northland, at least as far as birding goes. Although everyone was delighted with the large number of Boreal and Great Gray Owls that came down from the far north early in the season, now we’re watching as these ethereal feathered spirits topple over, dying of starvation. Steve Wilson, the official keeper of the death toll for Boreal Owls, had already accumulated about 70 of these tiny mousers by the Ides of March, and by the first day of spring the death toll was up to 95. Deep snows in the north woods promise that the toll will increase at least into April.

There are plenty of mice for the owls—that’s not the problem. The problem is those mice are tucked away under deep, ice-encrusted snow. It’s heartbreaking watching the owls stare at the snow, every fiber of their being concentrating on secret sounds that only they can hear. Suddenly they perk up and take off in a direct line toward their quarry. They know exactly where the mouse is, and they know with absolute certainly that a simple plunge into the snow is all they need to do to grab it. Imagine their utter bewilderment when instead of powdery fluff they hit rock hard ice. Owls are persistent, and Boreal and Great Gray Owls have only one tried and true method of catching mice, so they try again, and again. Many of the ones we’ve recovered this winter have bloody beaks and feet—bloodied from smashing into the ice crust so many times.

I’ve heard of one Boreal Owl that died in a death grip with a flying squirrel. Boreals are supposed to be strictly nocturnal—this year, they’re so desperately hungry that they are not only hunting at unusual times, but also attempting to take inappropriate prey— flying squirrels are little, but still outweigh a starving Boreal Owl.

These owls that belong north of here came down this fall, long before deep snow could possibly have caused them any problems. Did they anticipate the severity of this season? It’s appealing to think that birds and other wildlife have the ability to forecast the weather, but the truth is more prosaic. The birds Dave Evans banded at Hawk Ridge this fall and the owls he’s handled ever since have been almost all adults, meaning there weren’t many young produced this year—that’s strong evidence that the mouse population crashed north of here. And the owls he’s handled have old feathers—there clearly wasn’t enough food to allow a normal molt.

Perhaps the saddest element of this whole tragedy is that Boreal Owls are drawn to human habitation during times of shortage and stress. People have been heartbroken finding them dead on front porches and huddled in basement window wells. There’s not really anything we can do to help them in their time of need—nobody’s pushing the D.N.R. to provide mice and gerbils for them the way they provide deer feed for starving deer. The best we can do is to protect the mature forests and old trees they nest in so when the mouse population rebounds, the survivors of the winter of 96 will thrive and raise lots of babies. Several cultures throughout the world have superstitions about owls—many people believe that seeing an owl is a bad omen foretelling a death. There’s an odd grain of truth in that, but as it turns out, when a Boreal Owl sees a human, the death it foretells is usually the owl’s.