Always in Season/ Mike Jacobs: Snowy owls seem scarce in the Red River Valley so far this season
It’s been 50 years since Christmas bird counters failed to find a single snowy owl in the Grand Forks count circle, an area 15 miles in diameter centered on the junction of U.S. Highway 2 and the county road leading to Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Grand Forks.
Snowy owls have been scarce this season, and that’s enough to make them “birds of the week.”
They’ve been scarce, all right. For the first time since 1969, none were seen in the circle covered by counters on the annual Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count.
Scarce, but not absent.
Earlier this month, Leon Thoreson reported snowy owls near Climax, Minn., and last week – just a few days ahead of the Grand Forks count – Suezette and I spotted two snowy owls along County Road 18 northwest of Grand Forks. This put the birds within half a dozen miles of the Grand Forks count circle – but close doesn’t qualify in bird counts.
Suezette and I spotted our snowy owls in the classic way: from a car window. We were driving home from Grand Forks when we noticed an unexpected bump at the top of a pole. That’s one of the usual ways to spot a snowy owl.
Snowy owls are largely “perch-and-pounce” predators. They choose a high spot, then sit and watch, pouncing when prey passes. This is a technique used by other avian predators, including some hawks, shrikes and other owls, including the famous -- and fabulous – great gray owl, whose hearing is so acute that it can detect movement under several feet of snow.
Snowy owls hear well, too, but they are less dependent on audio signals than other owls. Almost alone among the owl family, snowy owls hunt in daylight, and so their eyesight plays as important a role in hunting as their sense of hearing.
This is a natural consequence of their normal habitat, the circumpolar regions of the world. At the time of year when finding food is most critical to the survival of the species, the breeding season, daylight lasts for 24 hours. “During the continuous light of arctic summer,” the monograph about the species in the “Birds of North America” series published by the American Ornithologists’ Union declares, a snowy owl “at times consumes more than 1,600 lemmings a year.”
This rapacious dependence on a single prey species has led to the theory that snowy owls come south to find food, and scientists have found a correlation between the fluctuations in the population of lemmings and the movement of snowy owls.
For many years, ornithologists debated whether owls moved because lemmings were rare or because lemmings were abundant. The first would suggest starvation; the second could lead to reproductive success among the owls and a consequent population explosion.
Recent research has suggested that food isn’t the only impulse driving the snowy owls, however. Curiosity appears to be another important motive. The owls are explorers, satellite tracking has shown. Individual birds may move from the Red River Valley, for example, to the Arctic ice with no apparent reason other than wanderlust.
Of course, wanderlust has survival value. Our own species has proven that, by expanding across the planet. Snowy owls have not been quite so aggressive – because they are not quite so adaptive. Nevertheless, they’ve settled into a tough environment that few people would inhabit.
They’ve found similar places to spend the winter – coincidentally, the darkest time of the year. Snowy owls are frequent visitors in the northern states, invariably choosing open, windswept places, such as the Red River Valley.
It may be that our area is the most reliable spot for snowy owls in the Lower 48 states – with the possible exception of Logan Airport in Boston. New England and the northern Plains typically have snowy owl reports every winter; elsewhere, snowy owls are less regular and in the southern states, they are very rare indeed.
That’s why this season has been so remarkable; it’s been 50 years since Christmas bird counters failed to find a single snowy owl in the count circle, an area 15 miles in diameter centered on the junction of U.S. Highway 2 and the county road leading to Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Grand Forks.
The area provides attractive haunts for snowy owls, including the Grand Forks International Airport, the city lagoons and many hundreds of acres of open country.
This area supports a variety of species that might make a fitting meal for snowy owls. Perhaps the most attractive is the gray partridge, an open country bird. In the 40 years that I’ve written this column, the partridge has been the bird of Christmas week more often than any other species.
That choice has more to do with the holiday than with the habitat, however; the partridge is the first gift in a familiar Christmas carol. Unlike the snowy owl, the partridge is a resident, occurring here throughout the year. Also, unlike the snowy owl, it is not a native species. Partridges were brought to North Dakota about a century ago. Snowy owls have been prowling these precincts far longer than that.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.