For the Birds Radio Program: Snowy Owls

Original Air Date: Nov. 16, 2000 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Jan. 27, 2009; Feb. 12, 2008

Some Snowy Owls that find their way down here can be starving.

Duration: 4′29″


Every winter owls from the far north retreat to the Lake Superior area. This annual event is far more noticeable some years than others. Most years they seem to be in good health. But this autumn, a huge number of boreal and snowy owls have been found starving and dying in Superior, Duluth, and along the North Shore. In early November, the Superior Animal Shelter asked me to pick up a boreal owl that seemed to be healthy, but just in case, I sent it on to the Raptor Center in St. Paul. On November 13, I got another call from the Superior shelter, this time for a Snowy Owl. The bird looked wonderful, with its brilliant golden eyes and gorgeous, dense feathers. But with owls, appearances are deceptive. He died in my arms before I even got home. I ran my fingers over his breast and under his wings and couldn’t feel any muscle, much less fat, at all. He was nothing more than a skeleton encased by a thin layer of skin and those beautiful feathers. I closed his eyes myself–I couldn’t bear to see them dull and lifeless just moments after seeing the fire in them.

Apparently this winter is going to be an “invasion” year, as ornithologists call years when northern owls move south. Birders thrill at the prospect of seeing them, but these years are bad for the owls. No one knows exactly why they retreat south. Sometimes they do so when food resources are low in the far north while other times they come our way when conditions have been so good up north that they become crowded. In those years it’s generally immatures that move south. I wonder what they think of their first winter. When my dog Photon discovered snow, she was delighted. Do birds share that happy surprise the first time they see snow? Do they see the sparkly magic in it, or does it seem frozen and impenetrable, an obstacle between them and sustenance? When a young owl is moving south its first time, lost in strange, often inhospitable environments so different from the treeless wilderness of the tundra, and suddenly snow is falling from the sky, how does it feel? That poor Snowy Owl in my arms wasn’t telling.

If you chance upon a starving owl, time is of the essence. It needs to get to the Raptor Center in St. Paul, or Marge Gibson in Antigo, Wisconsin, as soon as possible. Minutes can be critical.

There was no hope for the Snowy Owl I had–it was in shock, its pupils fixed and dilated, when I picked it up. But if it were still hanging in there, the first thing I would have done is take unflavored Pedialyte® or another electrolyte solution and dribble small amounts on its beak with my finger. As drops seep into the mouth, suddenly, if they are at all alert, they spontaneously start drinking on their own.

Pedialyte® has nutritive value, but as a starving owl gets rehydrated, it needs something more substantial. That’s when I switch to Gerber strained chicken. Gerber adds enzymes to it, making the proteins easier to absorb. Owls need to cast a pellet every day or so to keep their stomach functioning properly, so they need mice, too. it’s important that they get to professional rehabbers as soon as possible. That is also important if you don’t want to violate state and federal laws, which prohibit people without licenses from possessing wild birds. Fortunately, enforcement officers are very understanding in emergencies, as long as citizens really are doing their best to get the bird to a bona fide rehabilitator.

Many cultures believe seeing an owl portends a death. Sadly, that myth is sometimes based on truth, though the deaths these northern owls portend are their own. With any luck, birders will enjoy seeing a few healthy owls this winter, which we can watch to our heart’s delight, wondering what thoughts they have as they regard us back with those luminous, wild eyes.