Q: Can this be true? I read that that some of those beautiful snowy owls landed at airports in the New York area and those in charge had them killed. This is unbelievable to me, and I wonder what would happen at our local airport if owls appeared there.
A: You're right, airport authorities in New York and New Jersey, spooked about the possibility of owls colliding with planes, had several of them shot. A huge hue and cry erupted, and they're now working to relocate the owls instead of killing them.
I checked with Patrick Hogan at the Metropolitan Airports Commission and was relieved to learn that this wouldn't happen here.
"We've never used force to remove a snowy owl," he said, adding, "For the most part we use harassment [noise cannons, fake predators, etc.] to discourage them from hanging around the airport. If that doesn't work, we capture and relocate them."
Why do snowy owls have an affinity for airports? They're a tundra species that hunts in open areas, and airports look like home to them.
Snowy owls are showing up in great numbers in the eastern half of the United States this winter, probably due to a scarcity of their prey. They've been sighted in Minnesota lately, too.
Eagles gather where food is
Q: On a drive in western Minnesota I saw about a dozen large, dark lumps scattered in the stubble of a picked cornfield. At first I thought they were turkeys but then I saw white heads and big yellow beaks. Do eagles congregate to eat leftover corn? They appeared to be too scattered around the field to be feeding on carrion.
A: That's a good question, and since I've never observed such behavior, I checked with Scott Mehus, education director at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minn.
"My guess is that a farmer had spread homemade manure on his field," Mehus said, and if it was a poultry, beef or swine operation, the manure probably contained the remains of livestock carcasses.
"That occurred during prime eagle migration season, and it's fairly common to see eagles in farm country feeding like this after the farmer spreads manure. I tell my classes that eagles have a limited sense of smell and they need the meat that was put into the manure spreader to survive. Eagles are opportunistic predators and will take carrion when it's available," Mehus added.
An odd sight
Q: My friends and I were walking in the woods when we came across a dead chickadee among some low branches of a tree. Did the bird crash into the twigs and get caught?
A: It's more likely that this was the work of a northern shrike, a predatory songbird that kills small rodents and birds and often stores them for later eating. Shrikes are notorious for hanging their dead prey on thorns, or wedging it into the Y of a branch, even sticking a bird or mouse onto barbed wire. This way they create a larder for times when prey is scarce. Shrikes aren't classed as birds of prey, since they don't have powerful talons. Instead, they make their kills with their powerful beaks.
Eagles and ducks?
Q: I've seen eagles swooping over and scaring groups of coots on a local lake. I thought eagles mostly ate fish and am wondering whether the eagles would actually eat a coot.
A: Yes, eagles keep a close eye on groups of birds in the water and will swoop low over a raft of coots or ducks to see if there's an impaired bird among them. Once an eagle discovers a bird that's unable to escape due to illness or injury, it relentlessly hounds it until its prey is exhausted. After snatching it up in its huge talons, the eagle usually lands in a tree to eat. I've seen eagles dining on coots and mallards at a lake near my home, and once even observed an eagle eating a mallard while standing at the edge of a golf course pond.
Cold and blue
Q: We live near Grand Rapids and I was concerned to see a group of bluebirds flitting around in late October. Why were they still here that late in the year?
A: It's disconcerting to see a bird we associate with summer so late in the season, but you needn't fret — bluebirds are hardy little birds. As long as they can continue to find food, bluebirds (and many other songbird species) can survive the cold. In late fall — and even in winter — fruit is still abundant and it's full of energy, adding to the "fat jacket" birds need to make it through cold nights. As nights get colder and longer, though, the birds head southward.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.