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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.

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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.

Snowyowlmap
Image provided by eBird (www.ebird.org) 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?

SnowyOwl-DougHansen
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!