Wednesday, January 12, 2022

If you see a snowy owl, that doesn't mean it's starving

Martin Stoffel of Saskatchewan is one of two owl banders 
who provided data for the research. (Photo by Daniel Dupont)
You may see a snowy owl this month. Given the weather, you may think it's starving. It's probably not, according to research by according to University of Sas­katchewan scientist Karen Wiebe.

Many snowy owls spend winter in southern Canada and the northern U.S. "They pop up in odd places—hunkering down on haystacks in farm fields, just off the runways at airports, atop light poles in grocery store parking lots—to the de­light of birders and Harry Potter fans," writes Erica Cirino of All About Birds. "It’s also common for some people to feel anxiety over the snowies, believing them to be hungry vagrants." For example, a TV station in Michi­gan’s Upper Peninsula "re­ported that the owls’ southern travels were 'linked to food supply' and that 'Snowy owls often arrive in Michigan weakened and starving.' That first statement is often true, but the second is generally not true."

Wiebe and graduate student Alexander Chang published research in August that showed "most snowy owls wintering in southern Canada ap­peared to be doing just fine," Cirino reports. "Indeed, many of the owls actually put on weight over the winter by increasing their subcutaneous fat stores (fat that accumulates under the skin on birds’ chests and beneath their wings and is used for both insula­tion and energy)." Other studies have found likewise. At Logan International Airport in Boston, Norman Smith of Massachusetts Audubon says he’s banded more than 700 snowies since 1981. He has not experienced a single year where hatch-year owls have showed signs of starvation due to lack of food."

All About Birds is a publication of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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