For the Birds Radio Program: Boreal Owl

Original Air Date: Jan. 24, 1997

Many Boreal Owls are turning up dead this year, and no one knows why. Laura recounts a story about a Boreal Owl in a life-or-death struggle with a flying squirrel.

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A week ago, I got a call from a woman who had been skiing at Lester Park in Duluth with her husband when they came upon a dead owl. She described it as very tiny, and wondered if perhaps it could be a baby, though that didn’t make sense to her, it being January and all. She was right–it wasn’t a baby, but a full grown adult Boreal Owl.

These lovely little predators have been turning up in northern Minnesota this fall, but, sadly, over half the ones people have found have been dead. This little one had apparently just died–when her husband brought it to me, its eyes were still shiny and moist. It had fallen next to a ski trail, far from any road, and there were no snowmobile tracks or other indications of the cause of death.

During some invasion years, Boreal Owls retreat south when starving. During the first stages of starvation, birds literally resorb their breast muscles to sustain the rest of them, and when you touch the chest of a starving bird, you can feel the sharp keel bone jutting out, but this bird, like the other dead owls people have found this year, had fairly large pectoral muscles still intact. I blew on the feathers to scrutinize the skin for signs of injury, but couldn’t see anything unusual. At this point, the cause of death for the many dead owls is a mystery.

One Boreal Owl hung around for five days at a feeder in Saginaw. It didn’t eat bird seed, but was very interested in the critters that did. The morning I was there with my birding buddy Mariah, we saw a flying squirrel hiding inside a bird feeder while the little owl sat on an electrical outlet box against the house. We watched the owl for ten minutes or so, but when it tucked in its head to take a nap we left it in peace. The squirrel apparently also thought it was sleeping, and decided to make a run for it. But the owl was merely playing possum, and suddenly zoomed in for the attack, just before some other birders arrived to watch the gruesome scene.

Boreal Owls weigh only about four ounces–the same as a quarter pound hamburger patty–so taking down a flying squirrel is a pretty ambitious undertaking for one, but this was one hungry owl, feisty enough to stick with it. The two tussled for a good half hour, and much of that time it looked like the squirrel would get away or even do serious damage to the owl, but in the end hunger won out over desperation. The squirrel was too heavy for the owl to fly upwards with, so it lugged it to a basement window well to eat.

I wonder if perhaps a few of the dead owls people are finding had won similar tussles with squirrels, but with injuries which later became infected. We’re hoping necropsies will finally reveal what killed so many little owls, and hoping even harder that one little Saginaw owl lives long and prospers.