Snowy Owls In BC: Food Supply Forcing Birds Farther South

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SNOWY OWLS
Snowy owls rest on a dead tree on the shore of Boundary Bay in Delta, B.C., on Saturday Dec. 1, 2012. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck) | CP

VANCOUVER - Snowy owls from the Far North are wowing bird lovers in British Columbia's Lower Mainland.

About two dozen of the wide-eyed Arctic birds of prey have taken up winter residence in Boundary Bay regional park in Delta, B.C.

"I don't know quite what's happening in the snowy owl world but they're there," says Anne Murray, an amateur naturalist and author for Nature Guides B.C. "It looks like it's going to be another good year."

It's the second winter in a row that snowy owls have migrated en masse far south of their summer habitat in the North. Last year, more than 40 owls spent the winter in the Vancouver-area park, and there were reports of owls spotted as far away as Hawaii and Virginia.

Experts say the birds wander far from home when a population boom forces younger owls out in search of more plentiful food.

"When there's a lot of lemmings, the owls have a lot of young ones and then if the lemming population drops, there's nothing for the baby boom to eat, and so they disperse. It's often the younger ones," Murray says.

A single owl can hatch a dozen eggs during peak years.

Snowy owls are large, standing up to two feet tall with a wing span of about 1.5 metres. Males can weigh in at 1.8 kilograms and females at 2.3 kilograms.

Unlike most owls, they are active during the day as well as night — an adaptation to the extreme climate of the North, where at the peak of summer there is 24-hour daylight and in winter, 24-hour darkness.

Males are pure white, even their claws covered in downy feathers, and females are white with some dark brown feathers. The snowy owl is the official bird of Quebec.

"They're wonderful birds to see. Last year thousands of people came out to see them, families and people from overseas. It's not so often close to urban areas you get to see a beautiful Arctic owl," Murray says.

Bird watchers are, however, asked to keep a respectful distance from the owls.

Pat Day, founding director of O.W.L., the Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society in Delta, implores bird watchers to stick to trails and take binoculars, to avoid disturbing the owls.

She also says she's had six snowy owls brought in, most of them starving. Only one that came in with broken wing has survived.

Day says the owls have been affected by the mild weather across Canada this fall.

"The weather was so nice for so long I think they started the migration too late," says Day, who has rehabilitated birds of prey for 37 years. "There was no build up to the cold weather, it just hit... they got dumped on."

Annick Gionet Rollick, a zoologist with the Owl Foundation in Ontario, says her province had a high number of snowy owls show up last year.

"Snowies are nomadic and will exhibit population booms and crashes," she says.

"What you are likely dealing with is a population boom and therefore they are moving south to locate food. This is cyclical."

The iconic white birds return to the tundra in the spring, for breeding season.

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