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Bird banders puzzled by snowy owl numbers, health in Michigan

Snowy owl photo
Courtesy photo
Nova Mackentley, www.nightflightimages.com
David Brinker of Project SNOWstorm with Chippewa, just prior to release. This was the first snowy owl fitted with a GPS/GSM transmitter in Michigan last February, near Paradise.

There are over 200 different species of owls, but only one that can survive the temperatures of the Arctic: the snowy owl. A small number of these owls make appearances in the Great Lakes region every year. This year, several came to Michigan earlier than expected and they were malnourished. We get an update on the snowy owls from two experts in the field.

Birdwatchers and ornithologists are likely to remember the winter of 2013-2014. That was the year they witnessed a huge invasion of snowy owls here in the Great  Lakes region and the northeast, the largest in decades. The influx led to Project SNOWstorm, a nonprofit that uses GPS transmitters to track and study the striking white birds.

This year has been different. The first snowy owls arrived earlier than usual, but fewer overall have been showing up in Michigan.

Current State gets an update on Michigan's snowy owls and what might be going on from Chris Neri, lead owl bander at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory in Paradise, Michigan, and David Brinker, one of the founders of Project SNOWstorm.


Why do you think some of the snowy owls were malnourished this year?

(Neri) It’s apparently common for these (birds). They really seemed to be young birds that moved down in mid October, a little earlier than normal. They do a long migration to get down here which takes a lot of their energy supplies--their fat stores--and they need to find hunting grounds once they get down here and apparently they just weren’t able to do that. There were six turned in to…rehab in Marquette, Michigan. 

Project SNOWstorm was forged after the 2013-2014 influx of snowy owls. What is the overall goal of the project?

(Brinker) What we’re looking to do is get a better understanding of the habits that snowy owls have when they’re down here in the winter. Do they concentrate mostly on shorelines? Are agricultural areas important? Really nobody had ever worked seriously on their winter movements. So we took advantage of the opportunity to put together a big, collaborative team (to) get these high-tech transmitters on them and learn what they do when they’re down here in the winter.

Where might you see a snowy owl?

(Neri) They will show up anywhere. They’ve shown up in cities. They’re drawn to airports because of the open space. But in Michigan, these birds will hunt waterfowl (and) we have so much shoreline, which is what makes Michigan attractive. Plus the farm fields. They’ll hunt waterfowl and they’ll also hunt voles. If there (are) farm fields that have a good rodent population, they’re drawn to them. (Also) along the shorelines where there (are) waterfowl or gulls.

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