Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Boreal Owl Update

Boreal Owl
Boreal Owl

During the three decades I’ve lived in Duluth, several winters have been marked by irruptions of northern owls. When I first moved here, seeing these extraordinary birds filled me with wonder and delight. I vividly remember going up Lester River Road with my husband and first baby to see my lifer Great Gray Owl perched on a low fence. When its eyes met mine, I felt an electrical surge of joy. That’s also how I felt when I saw my first Boreal Owl along a wooded country driveway in Saginaw.

When I became a wildlife rehabber in 1987, people started bringing me emaciated and dead owls. Northern owls leave their normal breeding range when driven off by competitors or when food supplies dwindle dangerously—a regular occurrence because they rely on prey species with population cycles that fluctuate wildly between high and low numbers. Their primary food resources are cyclical, so populations of these northern owls are cyclical, too, irruptions occurring when peak populations are about to drop precipitously. It’s not that the owls moving south are necessarily doomed. David Evans keeps track of Snowy Owls in the Duluth-Superior area. Some of his banded birds have returned several years running. But birds wandering beyond their familiar environment are subject to higher levels of mortality than those remaining on their home turf. Boreal Owls new to an area may not be able to find an unoccupied cavity to hide out in during daytime, exposing them to harsh weather and attacks by aggressive jays, crows, and hawks. They may not know the habits of unfamiliar prey species nor recognize the best hunting areas on unfamiliar turf. Tragically, lack of success in one area—the trigger sending them wandering in the first place—makes them hungrier and weaker by the time they reach new areas. By March in irruption years I’m often inundated with phone calls from people distraught after finding a dead or dying owl in their yard.

People who haven’t spent decades watching the dark side of these irruptions can’t help but feel the same joy when they see their first Boreal or Great Gray Owl that I felt when I saw mine, and I can’t help but share their joy at these thrilling encounters.

This year I’ve received calls and emails from hundreds of people enjoying thrilling sights of Boreal Owls between Duluth and Two Harbors. Social media have made it all surreal. Sometimes 20 or more people have crowded along the side of Highway 61 or the Scenic  Highway, binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras all directed at a tiny camouflaged mite in a tree. Boreal Owls usually hunt at night. When one is desperately hungry enough to be hunting by day, a pack of acquisitive birders can be distracting, may scare prey away, or may attract the attention of potential enemies. But birders witness the little owls successfully capturing rodents and shrews, too, and these birders’ unadulterated joy is contagious.

Boreal Owl
This owl held its left foot up part of the time, making me suspect a foot injury.
Except for my trip to Two Harbors on the day I call Superb Owl Sunday, I didn’t have the stomach to look for owls this year. As thrilling as our experience was, the Boreal Owl Russ and I saw seemed to have an injured foot, which made me worry about its long-term prospects. The next day some people retrieved one on the highway just south of Two Harbors, which I suspect was mine. It is recovering nicely at the Raptor Center—what I thought was a foot injury turned out to be a broken toe. That bird, mine or not, will be released soon. But the same day I found out about that, I looked out the window to find a dead Boreal Owl in my own backyard. The DNR is collecting carcasses to send down to the Field Museum in Chicago, so the tiny body is bagged with the necessary information in my freezer, and my own feelings about this year’s owl irruption have chilled considerably. 

The intensity of these events—both the joyful excitement and the heartfelt sorrow—is more than I can bear. By next month the surviving owls will wend their way back to their normal range. They’ll once again be out of sight, but not out of my mind. I’ll breathe easier thinking of them leading their lives in secluded privacy, where the woods are lovely, dark, and deep, far from the madding crowd.
Boreal Owl