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Starving snowy owl faces new threat, desperate Island search for food

Nov 28 2012
Crows menace a snowy owl on top of the Times Colonist building Tuesday morning. 

Crows menace a snowy owl on top of the Times Colonist building Tuesday morning.

Photograph by: Adrian Lam , Times Colonist

Half-starved snowy owls are flying 1,500 kilometres or more to Vancouver Island in search of food, says the founder of an avian rescue group in Courtenay.

Maj Birch is urging people to avoid frightening the owls into flight just to get a good photo, as that could sap what little energy they have left.

"They're all starving," said Birch, who founded Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society in 1995. "By the time they get down here, they're usually very thin.

We're finding them one-half to one-quarter of their normal weight."

This year is a big one for snowy owls on Vancouver Island, she said: "We've had five and know of at least five others in our area."

Birch, who is caring for two snowy owls right now, said three others have died in the last two weeks.

Camera buffs are likely not aware how stressed the snowies are because their thick plumage hides the fact that, underneath all the feathers, they're little more than "bone racks," Birch said, adding the birds will die standing up rather than let predators know they're weak.

"Don't chase them. You're making them spend the last remaining energy they have trying to avoid big predators with cameras, trying to make them fly."

Last year, Birch was aware of only two snowy owls in the mid-Island, a sign that this year's fledglings have come south from their Arctic home to seek food. Ironically, it can be an abundance of Arctic lemmings - their favourite food - that contributes to a food shortage for the next generation.

Well-fed females lay up to 11 eggs in 11 days, with up to seven hatching into chicks. That population boom, in turn, creates a shortage of food, with the parents staying behind and this year's crop of snowies seeking food farther and farther afield, Birch said. "They go as far south as Texas and Kansas and I know there's one in Nebraska."

Out of their Arctic element, snowies seek open spaces to hunt on the Island, including airport lands, or even rooftops, as they find the forest unfamiliar. As inexperienced hunters, "for every mouse they catch, they miss 10," she estimated.

The ailing owls in the sanctuary aren't getting any lemmings. Birch was up twice in the middle of the night Monday, hand-feeding one snowy owl with fluids and a vitamin mix. She will gradually introduce a "slurry of meat" when the bird is able to digest it.

Along with the snowies, Mountainaire is caring for two trumpeter swans, one tundra swan, two short-eared owls, two barred owls, two turkey vultures, a bald eagle and a little saw-whet owl, with assorted songbirds coming in most days, Birch added.

The society has two fulltime bird rehabilitators and runs on a budget of about $120,000, with $50,000 from B.C. Gaming and the rest from donations.

To take part in a voting challenge to help MARS win a donation from B.C.

KDedyna@timescolonist.com

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SNOWY OWLS: MALES ARE WHITER

Diet: Small mammals

Average lifespan in the wild: 9.5 years

Wingspan: 1.3 to 1.5 metres

Weight: 1.6 to 3 kilograms

Whitest of the white: Males only. Females are white with spots on their wings, and chicks are dark with spots.

Night and day: Most owls come alive at night but snowy owls are diurnal - they hunt both day and night.

Source: nationalgeographic.com

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VIDEO: Snowy owl chicks filmed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology on Bathurst Island in the high Arctic. The snowy owl part begins at minute 7:30.

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