Take time for the birds

Bird watching has become a very popular pastime all over Vancouver Island.

Bird watching has become a very popular pastime all over Vancouver Island.

There are many societies and groups that meet on a weekly basis and yearly at Christmas for a bird count. Many post reports on the different sightings together with a “rare bird alert.”

Over the last few weeks there has been much excitement after several snowy owls were seen from Campbell River to Victoria and Sechelt to the Lower Mainland.

MARS received an early Christmas gift as one of these magnificent owls which was rescued and brought to our center for rehabilitation.

There are different theories as to why these birds will migrate. I researched further and it appears that this year the rodent population in the Arctic failed and many owls left in search of another food source.

Another reason that triggers a migration occurs when a “baby boom” takes place and the young males are forced out to find their own territory.

Snowy owls are found across Northern Canada and Alaska, and northern Europe living in arctic tundra. Snowy owls are one of the largest and heaviest species of owl, standing 52 to 71 centimetres tall with a wingspan measuring 125 to 150 centimetres and weighing between 1.9 and 3 kilograms.

There is no mistaking a snowy owl with their large round heads, bright yellow eyes, black beak and powerful legs clad in long shaggy feathers hiding their sharp black talons. Dense layers of feather are especially designed to insulate the owl against the extreme winter temperatures.

In addition they conserve energy by spending many hours standing motionless, preventing heat loss. In summer they will regulate their body temperature by panting and spreading their wings. Owls do not have sweat pores.

Male snowy owls are predominantly white with a few beige or brown speckles on their wings and heads; the females and juveniles are heavily barred and spotted resembling muddy patches in the melting snow, providing them with the perfect camouflage whilst sitting on the nest.

Snowy owls are daytime hunters, searching for prey between dawn and dusk; they have a high food requirement and use the “sit and wait” method of hunting from a low vantage point, swooping down when prey is spotted.

These owls are opportunistic feeders but lemmings are their favourite. They also dine on snowshoe hares, ptarmigans, small mammals and other birds.

Snowy owls only “hoot” during the breeding season. Their other vocalization is a weird grating bark that is higher pitched in the female.

Breeding in the Arctic, snowy owls are not cavity nesters. In fact, the female scrapes a hollow in the ground and sit directly on the melting snow. They are very particular about their reproduction and some years if there is insufficient food they will not mate.

Snowy owls are very territorial and the male will patrol his area until the young are hatched. Predators include Arctic terns and jaegers, foxes, wolves or other mammals that will eat the eggs and the young.

Habitat loss and climate change pose the biggest threat to these owls as their breeding sites disappear and their prey is forced further south.

The owl that we rescued at MARS was extremely emaciated and had to be treated very slowly, starting off with fluids that had to be administered by tube. Puréed food was introduced gradually and he gained strength and responded very quickly.

Within a few days he was eating whole food, which was increased daily. A snowy owl can consume up to 1,600 lemmings in one year!

This owl is very stressed in captivity and we keep human contact to the minimum during his rehabilitation. It is hoped that the owl will be ready for release once we have flight tested him in a larger aviary. • • • •

The Comox Valley Naturalists are conducting a Christmas bird count Dec. 18. Maybe snowy owls will be on the list!

MARS continues to care for eagles, the latest a sad case is a result of territorial fighting. These large raptors are high maintenance and we would appreciate any donations to help us cover their basic care (many thanks to those who have already been generous).

For a $50 donation, we provide a tax receipt and a signed print of MARS from Brian Scott. We also have “hot chocolate” eagle goodies and other stocking stuffers available at our centre.

Please call 250-337-2021, or visit the website for links to more information. To report injured wildlife, please call 1-800-304-9968.

Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Friday.