Snowy owls are back in numbers this year, bringing questions out of the woodwork and birders out to catch a glimpse of these diurnal hunters.
Q: There are hundreds of snowy owls in Minnesota this winter. Why? Did they come to find food? Are they starving?
A: Lack of food is not the problem. Attribute the owls here and the hundreds being seen along the East Coast to a feast, not a famine. A major prey animal for snowy owls is the lemming.
This past spring, in the high Arctic nesting area of the birds, lemmings were countless. This abundance of food allowed owls to successfully raise full broods. Once the owls left the nest, dispersing to find their own hunting territories, there were not enough territories to go around.
According to Norman Smith of Massachusetts Audubon, the vast majority of the owls we are seeing are in very good condition.
Q: What are the owls eating here?
A: Observers have watched owls here catch small mammals, most likely lemmings, voles and mice. However, according to Smith, snowy owls also eat rabbits, cats, songbirds, waterfowl including geese, great blue herons and gulls. They eat kestrels, hawks, falcons and owl species including their own.
Q: Are the owls here all juveniles?
A: No. Although no one is checking owls for sex or age (a serious hands-on project), we can assume that while many are juveniles there is a mix of ages and sexes.
Q: Can you determine age from owl feather patterns? Are the juveniles the birds heavily marked with dark bars?
A: Juveniles are marked with bars. Some get whiter with age, according to Smith, and some get darker. There is a belief that mature male owls are the whitest, followed by light marking on mature females, with juveniles heavily marked. That is not necessarily the case.
Q: Are owls dying here?
A: As with any bird species anywhere, some of these owls will die. Owls are hit by cars. Owls pick up parasites and fungal infections. They die of rodent poison. Some fly into power lines and are electrocuted. Some turn out to be bad hunters and starve. These owls face the same problems all birds face.
Q: Can we expect to see snowy owls every winter?
A: Each winter we get a few snowy owls. But invasion years like the one we are enjoying depend on Canada’s lemming population. The owls don’t breed unless the lemming supply is adequate, according to Smith.
Q: Is change in the Arctic climate a factor in this?
A: Smith says no one knows.
Q: How long will the owls be here?
A: In Massachusetts, Smith said, the birds arrived in November and will leave in April. Ours probably are on the same schedule.
Q: Will we see owls another winter? Is the population stable?
A: These owls are found in the cold northern lands that circle the globe. No one knows how many owls there are, so no one knows if the population is going up or down, according to Smith.
Q: Where in Minnesota are the birds being seen?
A: Most of the owls have been found in rural areas where farmland is flat and open. This land looks like home to the owls. The counties immediately west of Minneapolis have produced many reports of owls: Wright, Kandiyohi, Meeker, McLeod and Stearns. Dakota County also has had a number of sightings. Two owls have been seen in Maple Grove.
Owls tend to be found where people are looking for them.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at email@example.com. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.