Monday, November 2, 2015

A Note on Snowy Owls

We have already seen a lot of media attention to the southern flight of Snowy Owls this year, some of it suggesting that these birds are starving or exhausted. There always seems to be a lot of hyperbole in the coverage of Snowy Owl irruptions; however these irruptions are complex and nuanced. Whilst it is true that some Snowy Owls may be pushed out of optimal habitat and that some may be very poorly fed or even emaciated, this is certainly not true of every Snowy Owl you see in southern locations. In some years, food supply may be better than in others and the number of owls in poor or good condition may vary. Many healthy Snowy Owls are injured by vehicles and collisions and sometimes the cause of emaciation relates to prior injury or illness. There can also be other complicating factors.

It is important to recognise that this is a natural cycle at work here and not to make over-reaching conclusions such as all Snowies are starving or Snowies are moving south because they are starving. Nonetheless, it is also important to recognise that there is a possibility that the Snowy Owl you are observing could be food stressed or forced into suboptimal habitat and therefore need plenty of room (don’t try to get close). Such birds may not have the energy reserve to flee or may stay motionless for other reasons (see my “signs of stress in owls” article at and your presence may be causing duress. Above all, never purposely approach a Snowy Owl on foot – remain in your vehicle if at all possible and always keep a respectful distance.

Photo by Christian Artuso shows a Snowy Owl in low, level, sustained flight across an agricultural area in southern Manitoba, Canada, part of the regular wintering range of this species.

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