Sunday, December 4, 2011

Call the Snowy Owl Hotline!

Thief River Falls - Snowy Owl (female) © Heidi Hughes

Reports of Snowy Owl sightings started started trickling in to Agassiz Audubon Society around Thanksgiving.

Now we're getting several calls a day - from all over the Red River Valley.

Van Hapka called Sunday morning at 9am to report a Snowy Owl on 190th Street and 300th Ave just south of Warren.  I drove over, and sure enough, there was big female owl sitting on a field drainage pipe.

Last Tuesday, I got a call from Wayne Moses reporting another owl near the Audubon Center, a small male, 5 poles east of the Radium turn-off on State Hwy 1 and Marshall County 36. 

There have been so many sightings in the Upper Midwest ornithologists say this could be a record - a big "irruption" -  winter.  There could be as many as hundreds of snowy owls in Minnesota and Wisconsin at this time.

Winter Snowy Owls in the Red River Valley are not unusual.  But why so many this year - and before the snowy weather?

Snowy Owls live way up north in the tundra.  Their populations are controlled by the availability of food.  When there's lots of of their favorite rodents (lemmings) up on the tundra, there's lots of food for Snowy Owls to feed their young.  More baby owls survive.  This summer was a great year for arctic rodents and for their predators - owls and hawks.

Scientists at Cornell University reported an interesting "twist" on eBird:

"...lemmings this year were at historical population highs allowing for a very successful breeding season for Arctic raptors, including Snowy Owls. The resulting population boom causes overcrowding and competition at typical wintering grounds pushing inexperienced birds farther south into the Lower 48."

Agassiz Audubon is keeping track of these birds this winter - if you see one, call the "Red River Valley Snowy Owl Hotline:"  281.745.5663 - or send us an email ( - with the following information:

1.  day of the week:
2.  time of day:
3.  location (from the nearest intersection - or GPS coordinates):
4.  what the bird was perched on:
5.  description of the amount of black barring:
6.  relative size of the bird:  (much bigger than a crow or about crow-size):

Photo submissions are welcome - but please don't chase the birds to get a good picture.   They're already stressed - looking for the 7-8 or more rodents they need to catch every day just to survive.  And sadly, many of them are starving.

"We received an email with a photo of a dead owl from Bette Allison of Roseau recently," said Hughes.   She was on her way to Badger when she spotted a Snowy Owl by a ditch on Hwy 89.  On her way back home, she spotted the bird again - tipped over on its side - dead.  She reported it to the DNR who later picked it up.  They told her it had not been hit by a car, it had starved to death.

Dead or alive, owls are protecting in Minnesota, so if you find an injured (or dead) bird in northwestern Minnesota, be sure to call the DNR (218) 755-2976.

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