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a new yard bird and owl etiquette

Our newest yard bird (#133) was a very sleepy Northern Saw-whet Owl, roosting in one of our cedar trees, right outside our kitchen window. Although it wasn’t deeply concealed, we never would have noticed it if my husband hadn’t seen the big blop of whitewash under the tree. He looked up, and there it was. Not a great photo below, because the bird has its head turned and eyes closed.

Nswo1yard A few years ago, we found a pellet under one of our other cedar trees that looked like it belonged to a saw-whet, so we’ve always half expected to find one here one day. This would be the obvious year. Following on the tail-feathers of this year’s boreal finch invasion, it has now been predicted northern owls will also be making a strong showing; already many banding stations have caught record numbers of migrating saw-whets.

With the arrival of winter and what may be many owls far south of their
normal range, perhaps it’s time to review a little owl etiquette
(applicable to all birds and other wildlife).

You might recall the Snowy Owl that showed up near here last winter. I ended up writing about how people cannot seem to use good judgement and behavior when it comes to owls. When I reminded people on the local bird list to be respectful of the owl, people commented on how healthy it seemed to be, and one photographer even commented that his observations led him to believe the owl was "in good health and exploring its surroundings or playing, if one likes."

Snow3benchIn early spring when the snow melted, the owl was found dead right near the last location it was seen alive. The carcass was brought to me. I gave it a cursory exam, and could see that there was no subcutaneous fat. Even taking into consideration some dehydration from freezing, it was obvious the bird was extremely lean. I gave the owl to the state for a necropsy. As it turned out, the owl had died of malnutrition. There were some miscellaneous contusions (which may have occurred post mortem) and feather lice, but the cause of death of this healthy-appearing owl was malnourishment.

The winter energy budgets of birds must be managed very carefully. Every time an owl is flushed, or even if it needs to remain awake and vigilant due to activity around it, precious energy may be wasted. This Snowy Owl was an example of a bird that dozens of people perceived to be healthy and "happy," even as it was slowly starving to death.


Filed in Birds, Me

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  • Patrick December 10, 2007, 10:40 am

    I always found it interesting that Snowy Owls don't seem to fall under the coverage of "owl ethics." Is it because they can usually be observed from far distances? Does that make it ok to allow 100's of birders to go see it?

  • Nuthatch December 10, 2007, 10:52 am

    I suppose it's because they are active in the day, and people therefore, somehow, don't think they are disturbing them from resting. However, I read a study on time budgets, and this species spends the majority of daylight hours sleeping or roosting, contrary to what we perceive. They actually do hunt a lot at night — and of course if they'd stayed north it would be dark most of the time, day or night.