A snowy irruption

People urged to understand ‘normal’ owl behavior

This snowy owl is feasting on prey along the city of Marquette's multi-use path not far from Baraga Avenue. The Chocolay Raptor Center urges the public to realize this can be normal snowy behavior. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

HARVEY — A person coming across a large white owl resting in what appears to be a lethargic manner might understandably be concerned. Is it sick? Or is it just resting?

Lately, it could likely be the latter.

The Marquette area in recent weeks has been visited by many snowy owls — raptors who spend their summers in Arctic regions. However, they travel south in unpredictable invasions called “irruptions.”

Now is one of those times.

The Chocolay Raptor Center, based in Harvey, is feeling the latest irruption first-hand, having recently tried to nurse back to health two snowy owls it took in for rehabilitation. Unfortunately, both birds — which were emaciated juvenile males — died, said Jerry Maynard, cofounder of the center along with Bob Jensen.

However, not all snowy owls seen on the ground are sick.

“Snowies are unusual birds,” Jensen said. “They don’t act like other birds in several ways, which causes people to think they’re injured when they’re not.”

For example, snowy owls are diurnal — active during the day — while other owns are nocturnal, or active at night.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website, allaboutbirds.org, reads: “Snowy Owls do a lot of sitting. They sit still in the same spot for hours, occasionally swiveling their head or leaning forward and blinking their big, yellow eyes to get a closer look at something.”

Trees also aren’t really their thing.

“Their home is the tundra where there aren’t any trees, so they’re used to just hanging out on the ground,” Maynard said.

A person could make the argument that much of Marquette County resembles the tundra this time of year, so snowies might feel right at home.

Behavior is another issue.

“They’re tame,” Maynard said. “They’re not afraid of people because they don’t run into many people.”

Last and maybe not least, if a snowy owl has food in front of it, that’s a priority.

“If they’ve got some food, if they’ve killed a rabbit or a squirrel or something, they ain’t going to leave for nothing,” Maynard said. “They’re going to stay there until it’s all gone.”

A recent case in point manifested itself Tuesday after calls came in of a snowy owl on the ground along the city of Marquette’s multi-use path near Baraga Avenue.

Maynard and Jensen checked out the area.

The owl didn’t appear to mind people getting close to it, but then again, it was feasting on a mammal of some sort.

A similar situation occurred recently behind Vango’s Pizza and Cocktail Lounge, located along Third Street in the city of Marquette. It too was eating prey.

“People see a snowy on the ground and they can walk up close to it, and they think it’s injured — It must be because that’s not normal for a bird when it’s normal for a snowy,” Maynard said.

It also appears to be an irruption year. Project SNOWstorm, with which the center collaborates, has reported snowy owls from New Jersey to the Dakotas, he said.

Project SNOWstorm was founded in 2013 in the wake of the largest invasion of snowy owls into the East since the 1920s, according to its website. People involved with the effort donate their time and expertise, and the work is funded entirely by donations from the public, including contributions from birding and ornithological groups.

Why the most recent irruption?

“That’s what they’re trying to figure out because it’s been four years since there’s been a real irruption,” Maynard said.

Even Project SNOWstorm acknowledges irruptions aren’t fully understood.

Caleb Putnam, the Lansing-based Michigan bird conservation coordinator for Audubon Great Lakes and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said an irruption is definitely related to food.

“What we can say for sure is lemmings, their primary food source in the Arctic, go through constant cyclical changes in abundance,” Putnam said.

As a result, fewer lemmings are a catalyst for a southern migration.

Another factor is the number of birds that came out of nests during the summer, he said. The more young birds emerge from them, the higher the competition for food, which leads them to seek food elsewhere.

Putnam also noted that downstate Michigan now gets snowy owls every year, which wasn’t the case in the 1990s and 2000s.

How much irruptions are understood doesn’t change the fact that many snowy owls are coming to the Marquette area.

That prompted Maynard to give some advice.

“Admire it from a distance,” he said. “Watch it, and if it’s still there after four or five hours or if it’s obviously got a wing injured or something, call us.”

The center can be reached at 906-249-3598.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.