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It’s Not Easy Being White — and an Owl

Editor’s Note: The ABA Blog welcomes new contributor Ann Nightingale of Victoria, British Columbia.  Ann is past President of the Rocky Point Bird Observatory in Metchosin, British Columbia; one of 25 migration monitoring stations across the nation from BC to Newfoundland, affiliated with Bird Studies Canada.


It’s not easy being green. It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things– Kermit the Frog

Kermit thought life was tough because no one notices you if you’re green. On the other side of the coin, imagine what it must be like these days if you are a Snowy Owl. There’s a major irruption of Snowy Owls happening across the continent. The eBird map below shows just those that have been reported until the end of November, and there’s no reason to expect that this “snow storm” is going to abate any time soon. They’ve been trickling in to haunts along waterfronts, farm fields, airports, hilltops, urban rooftops and just about anywhere that reminds them at least a little bit of home. They’re even showing up in forested areas. The big trees of the Pacific Northwest must seem very strange to these tundra dwellers.

Image provided by eBird ( and created December 4, 2011.

Big white owls don’t go unnoticed. Even people who don’t know what they are have to stop to take a look. Other birds notice them too, and their mobbing behavior is what often attracts passersby. Well, that and the mobs of humans with cameras, binoculars, and scopes.

It’s always exciting for birders when an irruption happens. Birds that we don’t usually get to see may finally be close to home. And a big white owl—WOW! Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity to get up close and personal to one of these beauties?

Snowy Owl in North Saanich, BC. Photo by Doug Hansen

And there’s the dilemma. The Snowies are here this year because they have to be. They’ve run out of food on their usual wintering grounds. While that’s often a result of a poor year for their primary food source, lemmings, apparently the lemming population was very strong during the owl breeding season this year. That led to a productive summer for the owls, and now the lemming supply is rapidly being depleted. It’s likely that many of the Snowies we’re seeing in southern Canada and the northern US are young birds and not very adept hunters. Some are truly desperate to find their next meal and many of them are not going to survive the winter.

Birders, photographers, and others want to have a look at the owls when they are in their neighborhoods. Despite the challenges the birds are having, I think we may have an opportunity cloaked in white feathers in our midst. The Snowies can provide a means for us to get others excited about birding and also introduce birding ethics at the same time. We can share our binoculars and our scopes so that people can get a good look without stressing the owls. We can talk to people about why the owls are here and how important it is to protect their habitat and respect their need for space. We can politely encourage photographers and birders to keep their distance. We can try to make it a little easier to be a large white owl in a strange land.

So if you are lucky enough to have them in your area, hurry up! Get out there and share a Snowy Owl!

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Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale (and yes, that is her real name) is an avid birder and amateur naturalist. A relative late-comer to birding, Ann took up the binoculars and scope in the mid 1990’s and has been making up for lost time since. Ann serves on the board of Rocky Point Bird Observatory, a migration monitoring station on the southern tip of Vancouver Island (the place with the Skylarks!) She first volunteered at RPBO in 1997 and over the years has become a licensed passerine, hummingbird and owl bander. Also active with the Victoria Natural History Society, Ann leads local birding field trips and coordinates the Christmas Bird Count for the Victoria circle. Recently she has added coordination of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands for the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas to her “administrative birding” activities.
Ann Nightingale

Latest posts by Ann Nightingale (see all)

  • Please! Share a Snowy Owl! Because of the ease of identification and observation, these birds are reported more often than many irruptives, and are easier to track. This winter I have been plotting all reports (including “a neighbor sent me this photo…” types) and am hoping to get more. If you find a Snowy, please report it to your local list, add it to eBird, or let me know here (jmellis2 AT In collaboration with eBird I’ve been adding such informal sightings lately, so that map above is actually probably quite a bit denser if you look at it now in eBird. There are multiple birds being seen in Kansas, Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri, and one even made it to Hawaii. Find one in your state now!

  • There’s a lot of misinformation swirling about out there regarding Snowy Owl irruptions. No one issue in Snowy Owl ecology is likely the cause for these event. Kerlinger and and Lein (1985) collected ACTUAL DATA on owl health during irruptive events and found that most owls were healthy (42% had moderate to heavy fat deposits) and that the primary cause of mortality was NOT starvation. It was interactions with people and their stuff.

    I collected Snowy Owl pellets in the 2005-06 irruption and found that the owls at the South Jetty of the Columbia River were eating Black Rats (_Rattus rattus_), Red Phalaropes and Bufflehead. This season, the single owl that turned up at the South Jetty was photographed with a Black Rat in its talon.

    So, owls are relatively healthy, finding food and mostly in danger of lethal HUMAN encounters.

    A bibliography of owl references is at:

  • So glad you brought up this topic, Ann! Here in western Washington State, we’ve been enjoying abundant Snowy Owls and it has provoked lively discussion about how to enjoy them without loving them to death! Scenes of birds surrounded by hordes of birders and photographers have caused some real discomfort.

    I wonder if the ABA might publish some guidelines — a bit more specific than the Code of Ethics — on how not to disturb? For example, how do you know what an appropriate viewing distance is? How can you tell when a bird is becoming agitated by your presence?

    It’s my impression that many folks who would be mortified to think they caused harm to one of these birds haven’t a clue about such things.

  • Thanks, Mike,

    That’s good additional information. I agree that there are likely many reasons why the owls irrupt, and many mysteries, too. I’ve wondered why they seem to be reported primarily along the US border states and southern Canada and not so much in between.

    By taking a number of statistics courses, I’ve become somewhat analytical of statistical reports. By my calculation, in the study you cite, if 42% were relatively healthy, that suggests that 58% were not. So while lack of food on their normal wintering grounds likely isn’t the sole cause of the irruption, a lot of the owls do seem to be having trouble finding enough to eat. I believe a number of this year’s owls have already been reported as found dead and extremely emaciated.

    The main point, though, is that when they are here, we should enjoy the opportunity to view them–but at a distance!

  • Kerlinger and Lein make the great point that condition estimates for these irruptors are based almost exclusively on salvaged specimens–individuals that would be expected to be in worse shape than average.

    There has been just one this season in New Jersey that I know of, and that one uncharacteristically inland. The irruption appears to be mainly midwestern and west coastal this year.

    I love the lines from Bull’s Birds of the New York Area: “Present-day observers who see from one to six in a day’s trip on Long
    Island and call it a ‘big’ flight should bear in mind that their counts are insignificant” compared to 1890-91 and 1926-27. “During the former flight year at least 20 were shot at Montauk alone in a two-week period… and over 70 were shot on eastern Long Island between Nov. 24 and Dec 12…. In the great fall flight of 1926, 40 were killed on Fisher’s Island alone… 36 additional birds just from eastern Long Island. At Long Beach, eight were shot on the morning of Dec. 5, and at least 75 more were shot elsewhere in the New York City region.” My suspicion is that similar numbers are probably present in the midwest and on the eastern Great Plains right now, though the scarcity of birders means we’ll never know.

  • I believe it is Kerlinger and Lein 1988, not 1985. Here’s a link to the article. A few additional things to note from the paper:
    1. Starvation was the cause of mortality for only 14% of the owls, but physical trauma killed 86%. Physical trauma includes 13% that were shot (illegally).
    2. The summary in the comments above doesn’t include the “light fat reserves” category. Of the DEAD owls found, 36% lacked fat reserves. Most of those birds died from physical trauma, however.
    3. Weights of live-trapped owls did not significantly differ from weights of owls that were found dead.
    4. On the other hand, this study was done in Alberta, the core of the winter range. It is possible, the authors say, that the birds further south–the ones irrupting into the northern U.S. right now–might be the starving ones.

    To be clear, I’m not advocating harassing Snowy Owls or any bird. We should treat these birds, and ALL birds, with respect and give them some distance. It would just be nice if there were DATA that supported the claims that the owls we are seeing are under unusual physiological stress. At this point, I think that’s just an often-repeated guess.

  • The amount of fat in reserve tell us many things, but “starvation” is not a function of fat or no fat. Many perfectly healthy birds carry no fat reserves, except during migration. When we ask questions about starvation, we look at muscle loss, particularly in the flight muscles. A bird that is metabolizing muscle is starving. A bird without fat reserves, but healthy flight muscles is a bird that that is not actively trying to store up fat.

    So, the numbers in Kerlinger, et al tell us that 42% were so healthy they were storing fat. We cannot say that 58% were starving or even unhealthy. The fat score were just less than moderate on the fat scoring scale.

    AND it is important to stress that the Kerlinger study was mid-continent and in the more typical winter range.

    The sight of Snowy Owls flying around pouncing on storm-stressed Red Phalaropes in 2005 at the South Jetty of the Columbia was truly something to see. These owls were not naive about how to hunt or what they could eat.

  • Hi Phil,

    I think you’re right about many people being mortified if they thought they were causing harm to the birds. I haven’t seen any owl-specific guidelines, but this brochure has some pretty good advice on approaching seabirds which could also be applied to owls.

  • Hi Ryan,

    I believe that there is data that a number, but not necessarily all, of the owls are under physical duress. Reports from wildlife rehab centers in the irruption regions indicate that a lot of the owls are emaciated (and often injured as well–the two are not mutually exclusive.) And of course, if they have found a good feeding ground in the south, we’d expect the owls to catch prey and do relatively well and maybe even successfuly return to their breeding grounds.

    We tend to think that animals act because of two main drives–reproduction and survival. We might just be guessing, but I think we’re applying logic to what we observe. We don’t know what causes the owls to irrupt, for sure. Could be weather, could be territorial battles due to population density, could be food supply or could even be disease. Most likely, it’s a combination of a number of factors.

    It’s surprising, in a way, that more studies haven’t been done on these charismatic creatures. It’s a good reminder that there is an awful lot that we don’t, or possibly can’t, know for sure.

  • PLEASE place emphasis on and awareness for the affect that birders and photographers have when they visit these birds (and all others). This year there have already been MULTIPLE incidents of extremely poor behavior by both photographers and birders. Most instances have involved folks that have walked piers and break walls in order to approach the birds very closely. Each incident has involved the birds being flushed multiple times, to the dismay of other birders present watching the ridiculous scene. In at least two of the multiple incidents, the photographers were warned by fellow birders and were asked to refrain. This is a CONSTANT issue in birding overall. The greater majority of folks show respect, restraint, and common sense, but there are always those that push the line too far, unfortunately.

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