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Starvation Forces Snowy Owls Into Minnesota

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
Bill Hudson has been with WCCO-TV since 1989. The native of Elk Rive...
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It’s one of those rare treats of Mother Nature. A bird seldom seen south of the Canadian border is becoming a common sight among many this winter, as Minnesotans come face to face with the snowy owl.

“They typically stay up in the tundra,” said Mark Martell, the director of bird conservation for Audubon Minnesota.

According to Martell, the eruption of snowy owls all across the state is the result of bare cupboards in Canada.

“They feed on Lemmings, which are cyclical, die off and when that happens, the young birds have to come south to find food,” explained Martell. “That’s what they’re doing.”

What’s so unusual is that the snowy owls are coming down in such large numbers. Hundreds have been sighted all across the northern tier states, even as far south as Kansas. On Tuesday, a snowy owl was photographed near the entrance to New York City harbor.

Here in Minnesota, they are being spotted largely in open areas and farm country, even Fort Snelling National Cemetery and MSP International Airport. The owls prefer open terrain because it is similar to the openness of the tundra, said Martell.

“We’ve had four come in so far this year,” said Dr. Julie Ponder of the University of Minnesota’a Raptor Center.

Ponder says it’s a bit unusual that the clinic is seeing more adults than juveniles, as has been the experience in past years. Ponder explains that the smaller owls are typically more prone to starvation than the adult birds.

“Usually, we’ll have seen the ‘snowys’ come in by now. The first ones are down and if they don’t figure out another food source, they starve,” said Ponder.

Getting enough food to eat is just one of the challenges. Because their normal habitat is complete wilderness, the owls are unfamiliar with vehicle traffic and power lines. Most of the owls that get admitted to the Raptor Center suffer a combination of starvation or broken bones.

Ponder added they will be bracing for more owls in the coming weeks, as word spreads and wildlife enthusiasts keep careful watch for these rare birds from the north.

“It’s pretty dramatic to see a huge white owl,” said Ponder.

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