Thursday, March 27, 2014

Snowy Owl whimsy

The big Snowy Owl irruption of 2013/14 was big bird news in the US northeast this past winter.  The birds were everywhere, to the delight of birders and non-birders alike, the subject of many news stories.

Reported sightings as of December, 2013; eBird

With good reason; they are beautiful, powerful birds, and often visible in daylight hours, unlike many owls.  I didn't see one myself, but that was for lack of trying, but here is a video taken by an expert birder, Zeke Jakub, who spent many hours watching this bird in Deerfield, MA.  Zeke started birding as a kid, and joined the bird group my parents were in.  His passion grew with him, and he is now a professional ornithologist.

Even though I didn't see one, I loved this picture that I first saw in a story about Snowys on the Global News page, but it is all over the web by now, including in this NPR story, which is well worth reading.

Arctic Snowy Owl nest lined with lemmings, 2013; Arctic Raptors Facebook page, photo JF Thierren
Snowy Owls breed in the Arctic during the long days of summer, often building their nests on hummocks on the tundra.  Their primary food source is lemmings, the rodents that are said to blindly follow one another off cliffs.  Or perhaps into owls' nests?  As I learned from another birder in Western Mass last week, owls will keep laying eggs as long as the food supply holds out, just as they might skip breeding when food is scarce. Thus, lemmings were exceptionally abundant in the summer of 2013, which meant it was an especially good year for the Snowy Owl population.

The birds who flew south over the winter were juveniles, and they've already started making their way back north.  The lemming population is cyclic, however, and surely there will be fewer of them this summer, so it's unlikely that this year will be as good for these owls.  Those of us who didn't see one this winter may have to wait for another lemming baby boom.

But last year, there was such a glut of lemmings that at least one owl made her nest of them.  Owls cache food, as do many passerines, and perhaps even lemmings, I don't happen to know.  Why they do this isn't always obvious; are they planning ahead for less abundant times?  How long does a Snowy Owl think a dead lemming is edible?

But, what if this fur-lined nest is the penthouse of owldom instead, like having a gold-lined bathtub, or a mink throw?  Could this owl have been so sated that she was able to think beyond her stomach to imagine creature comforts that most of her species never knows?   


Holly Dunsworth said...

How about a nice mammoth fur lined hut? link

Ken Weiss said...

Yes, well our ancestors didn't use the whole mammoth, which would be cushiony (like the owls' lemming bodies), and would be a long-term, if rather raunchy-smelling, way to store food (natural jerky, perhaps). What one would like to find is a cave in which some of the mammoths had been eaten but some remained, as if in the fridge, for later use by nasty Neanderthals who had bad luck confronting 'modern' humans, and never came back to their cave alive.

Holly Dunsworth said...

If the owls had thumbs and fingers to oppose them, I'm 100% sure they'd have constructed something less "raunchy" like our less-raunchy-than-fingerless-owls ancestors did!

Ken Weiss said...

Ick! You mean our forebears licked their greasy fingers while at the table? I hope they didn't touch anything (or anyone) delicate afterwards!

Ken Weiss said...

Actually, we have precedent for that. At least, in all the movies about Vikings, they slobbered their hand-held big meat hunks, got the grease and meaty bits all over their beards, and then sloshed it all down with mead. At least, the men did this. I dread to think how their women felt about it.

Holly Dunsworth said...

Dread not. They didn't have feelings!!!

Anne Buchanan said...

Like owls!

Holly Dunsworth said...

It's a snowy climate thing.