It is with sadness that I report on a phone call yesterday from the Raptor Center in St. Paul. Our rescued snowy owl did not survive. He, it was a he, essentially starved to death in spite of all the efforts to save him. Disappointed, I decided it was time to find out why so few of these visitors from the far north don’t do well in the lower forty- eight. Here are the reasons, as proposed by the experts at Cornel University, which is the nations leading collector of bird data (ebird) and research.
Scientists say the likely reason for the explosion a cycle of boom and bust among the owl and the lemmings they prey upon. Lots of lemmings lead to high reproduction rate among the owls. Few lemmings and the owl females don’t even ovulate. Last summer the owls' chief food source was abundant , allowing the adults to raise more young. More predators leads to fewer lemmings. Often it the young ones who head south in search of food.
Snowies are large, magnificent owls that have a wing span of 4 to 5 feet. Younger birds have speckled black markings; adult males grow whiter as they age. Our snowy was undoubtedly a young one
In Minnesota, the owls mostly eat small voles, mice and rabbits. Some are healthy, but others are weak and stressed. As youngsters, not all are good hunters yet.
It is likely that few of the younger owls reaching the United States survive to return to their breeding grounds. Perhaps catching mice and rabbits isn’t the same as catching lemmings. Many are malnourished. Not used to dense concentrations of roads and wires, in the arctic, the owls also crash into cars and power-lines. Observation at the Quarry Hill Nature Center in Rochester showed us a severely drooping wing.... likely broken. To rehabilitate owls is reportedly very difficult. Snow owls in particular do not care for anything other that live prey. Disappointing as our experience was we did all we could to help... and know that new generations of this beautiful bird will repopulate the bird. And the cycle will go on....