Transmitter gives a bird's-eye view into snowy owl's world

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 28, 2014 - 9:50 PM

A friendly, rarely straying snowy owl in Ramsey has attracted lots of attention, but experts worry about that.

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A snowy owl, believed to be “Ramsey,” sat atop a garage in the city of Ramsey while looking for prey one afternoon this week. Fifteen snowy owls are being tracked with small wireless transmitters.

Photo: JEFF WHEELER • jwheeler@startribune.com,

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There are 15 snowy owls across North America wearing transmitters, and none of them behaves like the one that’s been spotted in the city of Ramsey. He rarely strays. He’s extremely popular. And he can’t seem to fly from controversy.

“Ramsey” is the only suburban snowy owl monitored by Project SNOWstorm, a nonprofit national initiative to better understand and conserve these brilliantly white raptors. Other snowy owls wearing tracking harnesses travel hundreds of miles. One flew across Lake Erie. Two flew 150 miles along the Atlantic Coast.

But Ramsey stays within a mile radius of the mostly vacant 400-acre COR development area along Hwy. 10.

“Snowy owls like flat, open treeless places that look like the Arctic tundra,” said Scott Weidensaul, an owl researcher and co-founder of Project SNOWstorm in Pennsylvania. “Most hunt in grassy areas.

“But Ramsey spends time on the roofs of buildings, on light standards and, after dark, on road signs.”

The eight-month-old raptor whose yellow eyes burn brightly against his pearl complexion is believed to have been born in northern Quebec. But he truly loves the suburbs. One of his favorite hangouts, said Weidensaul, is a local hotel.

“Maybe he’s attracted to the pool,” he said.

Of the snowy owls being monitored, Ramsey has chosen to live the farthest west. The one closest to him is Buena Vista, in Wisconsin, a 5-pound male. He was fitted with a $3,000, 40-gram harness-transmitter — about 2 percent of the owl’s weight — in December. Buena Vista also has spent most of his time in a one-square-mile area — but near grasslands around Stevens Point, where prey is plentiful.

‘Ramsey’ likes Ramsey

In Ramsey, developers have invested sparingly in the vast COR area, but the city’s namesake snowy owl obviously doesn’t give a hoot. He seems to love the suburban community in Anoka County, and isn’t bashful about posing.

“There are a bunch of snowy owls down in the Twin Cities right now, but Ramsey’s the one whose picture is e-mailed to me by amateur photographers all the time,” said Frank Nicoletti, a raptor counter for the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth. It was Nicoletti who, while in the Twin Cities in January, captured and fitted Ramsey with his harness.

A few hundred snowy owls have been sighted in Minnesota this winter, in what is being considered by bird observers as a historical “irruption” year — possibly the biggest in a half century, Weidensaul said. An irruption is a sudden increase in population.

Snowy owls live and breed in the Arctic and often remain there through the winter. But they are nomadic by nature. A big lemming boom in northern Quebec provided the owls with an overabundance of food. Female owls laid lots of eggs and males provided enough rodents to feed a flock. In one nest, next to four unhatched eggs, a male snowy owl brought 78 lemmings, Weidensaul said.

So the owls, well-nourished and well provided for, began heading south in November.

Controversial photography

Their greater presence makes birds like Ramsey easy prey for photographers who experts say are endangering snowy owls by baiting them with rodents purchased at pet stores.

“I’m told the owls are swooping down on the photographers, almost taking mice from their fingertips,” Weidensaul said. “It’s not illegal in Minnesota, but it’s unethical to bait these creatures.

“By teaching owls that people have food, they’re liable to swoop down on anybody,” Weidensaul said. “It could be dangerous for the owls.”

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