Snowy Owls - Kate Crowley

By Kate Crowley
In the last column I mentioned the snowy owls that have come south this winter.  Since then we have had a chance to watch one of the birds three separate times.  It is hanging out in some open fields near Jean Duluth Rd. in Duluth.  Michael Furtman is a wildlife photographer who has been out capturing this bird’s image nearly every day of the past month.  I doubt anyone knows the movements and behavior of a snowy owl better than Michael. If you’re interested he has both a website ( and a Facebook page where he posts his fantastic images.
On the first day that we saw the owl, the sky was overcast, but the bird was very active.  It would perch on the ground for a few minutes, its head twisting and turning and then it would lift off and fly low over the ground, swooping up to land on the very narrow top of a metal fence pole.  Here it would repeat its survey of the surrounding field.  It is hunting and surviving on rodents, both voles and mice, which are very well hidden under that thick blanket of snow, yet the owl’s highly tuned sense of hearing can pick up squeaks beneath the snow.  Then it triangulates the location through its facial disks and offset ears, allowing it to fly directly to the spot where its unsuspecting prey sits.  Landing hard, with talons flared, it (usually) plucks its meal up and will swallow it whole while on the ground or maybe carry it to a perch where it will eat it head first in several gulps.
This particular bird is believed to be an immature male, based on its size and the dark barred pattern on its white feathers.  Some adult owls are pure white, but most, especially the females and immature birds have dark bars across their body and wings.  Females are also larger than the males. The white feathers of this bird are striking to say the least, but when the owl turns its gaze on you; its stoplight yellow eyes make you blink.  Talk about a penetrating stare.  I think that is my favorite feature.
We returned a second time after the start of the John Beargrease race, bringing three of our grandkids, daughter and son-in-law with us.  This time, the temperature was lower and strong westerly winds were blowing the loose snow horizontally across the fields.  In places it looked like a white out and we wondered how we’d possibly spot the bird in these conditions, but there it was, hunched down on a small hill, with its feathers flipping in the wind.  Michael Furtman was sitting in his truck with his big lens poking out the open window.  We had binoculars and I was pleased that everyone was able to see the small bump of white that was the owl in all the swirling, whipping wind.  Aren, who is 9 years old even got out of the car and stood with bare hands next to the car trying to get a better view of the bird.
It seems so remarkable that a creature could survive in those conditions day after day, but in their tundra home, this is not unusual weather for 8 months of the year.  Because there are no trees on the tundra the owls basically ignore our forests where we believe they could find so much better protection from the elements. 
The third visit came in late afternoon on another cloudy day.  This time we brought two adult friends with us and the owl was first spotted sitting in its usual spot on the hill, but before long it took flight and landed on one of the fence posts.  There is sat checking things out and as we got ready to leave it swooped down to a spot where tall dried grass poked through the snow.  It had its back to us, but I still managed to catch a glimpse of a small dark shape in its beak, then it was gone and the bird was flying again.
Everyone who sees these owls whether committed birdwatcher or not is stunned by their beauty.  There’s a good reason that J.K. Rowling chose a snowy owl to be Harry Potter’s companion.  They make an impression every time you see them. 
Through Project Snowstorm that I mentioned in my last column, scientists are learning more about these northern owls.  They have tagged a number of the birds around the country, including one in Minnesota.   A small sample of blood is taken and which allows the researchers to determine the sex and genetic background, as well as check for chemical contaminants.  The birds are banded and then fitted with a special lightweight backpack that holds a transmitter that broadcasts their position.  These backpacks have been shown over time to have no impact on the bird’s survival or reproductive success. Thankfully, most of the owls that have been captured and tagged have proven to be healthy, with normal fat reserves and weight. 
The Minnesota owl was caught near Ramsey.  It weighed 3 ¾ lbs which is considered a good weight for a male and appeared to be healthy overall. This bird is spending much of its time in an area of mixed residential, commercial and park lands.  The snowy’s that have gone to the urban areas are living near busy highways and airports.  This is a very risky existence, since they have no experience with cars or airplanes.  All of the migrant owls are exposed to utility wires, rat poisons and other manmade hazards common in our developed communities. 
Up until this most recent invasion and the advancement of tracking technology not much has been known about the winter behavior of snowy owls, especially during the night time. There are many questions scientists hope to answer through this project, which ultimately they hope will improve conservation efforts.
*Just a reminder that the Great Backyard Bird Count begins on February 14th. Participate and help scientists learn more about our bird populations.


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