The Pacific Northwest's limited experience with snowy owls has heightened the public fascination with this winter's appearance of the white birds here.
The causes for their visiting the Northwest and much of North America remain the subject of some speculation and debate (see accompanying story under "related stories" to the right). Paul Bannick, the author of the The Owl and the Woodpecker, recently discussed the owls, the possibility that climate change is affecting their habitat, and human responsibility for protecting both the habitats in which they breed and those they visit to survive the winter.
The Owl and the Woodpecker, published in 2008, continues to be one of the best-selling bird books in North America and was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award for general non-fiction. Besides being a wildlife photographer specializing in the natural history of North America with a focus on birds and habitat, Bannick currently serves as director of development for Conservation Northwest, an organization dedicated to protecting and connecting wild areas from the Pacific Coast to the Canadian Rockies.
Here's an edited transcript of an interview at Seattle's Discovery Park with Bannick. He will give a talk about owls, conservation and habitat at The Mountaineers on Jan. 12. (For information go to paulbannick.com.)
Martha Baskin: So, snowy owls have been seen here in the past?
Paul Bannick: Yes in 2005, I believe. During that irruption, a snowy showed up in Discovery Park in this meadow we’re approaching right here. Quite an unusual place for them. Typically a snowy lands in large wet fields or meadows and this is a very small meadow basically a clearing between some trees with a piece of driftwood.
Baskin: Not tundra-like.
Bannick: No, not tundra-like at all and, in fact, it’s interesting because when the snowy owls come down from the Arctic they choose the places that look the most like the tundra.
In fact even the grass they choose is the same color as the grass in the tundra often times the gold and yellow grasses. They're first coming down in the plains of Canada and then into the Great Plains of the U.S. during an irruption year and then after they fill up those plains, we get owls along the coast both the North Pacific Coast and the North Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes region.
Baskin: So, tundra is their preference?
Bannick: Owls in general are cavity nesters. There are nineteen species of owls in North America and all but two can be found in some kind of cavity. The two exceptions are the tundra dwellers, the snowy and short-eared. Others may use abandoned nests so the cavities are really just indents of an abandoned nest of a raptor or other bird. Technically they’re not in a cavity but they’re up in a tree. The snowy is, like the short-eared, unique; they utilize the grasses. For me the fascination for owls is that each of the 19 species represents a different habitat type. A couple are generalists, the great horned owls. But seventeen or eighteen represent habitat types. And the way they’ve adapted to nesting and the different life stages is by taking advantage of what’s available to them.
The snowy owl is the northern form of the great horned owl really. It split off during one of the past ice ages. The great horned owl nests in abandoned raptor nests and in cliff-side caves and holes in the ground but the snowy owl ended up being in a place where there were no trees. So instead the snowy owl spins around atop of a mound of hillock and creates what’s called a scrape, scratches a depression where some feathers help pad the ground for the eggs, and there it’s exposed with a wide view over a wide grassy expanse.
Baskin: You were actually there. Did you go up to the Arctic on assignment to do this book?
Bannick: I went twice, once because it had been a boyhood dream to see where the snowy owls nested. Incidentally that boyhood dream came about as a result of a visit by a snowy owl when I was a little boy. There was one on a telephone pole in the backyard in Seattle. And so I dreamed of going to a nest in the Arctic. Some of the images of that first trip did make it into my book, The Owl and the Woodpecker and subsequently while I was working on the book I went a second time. Those two times I went have been the only successful breeding years in the last say eight years.
Baskin: So the lemming population is critical and yet the owls coming down here means there’s an abundance of lemmings and hence an abundance of breeding.
Bannick: Yes that’s a tricky question. There’s two theories of why the owls come down here and they both relate to food. The old theory is that there was a large scale decline or precipitous decline in their prey base — which is lemmings — which forces the owls to move south. What you just pointed out there’s a little bit of inconsistency; if there was such a prey decline, then how come there’s so many young owls coming down? So the new theory weights toward the idea that there was a really good breeding year and owls disperse from the territories of their parents and with a really good breeding year the young are going to disperse further and further. Again in search of food. But it tells us there probably was a relatively good lemming year in some part of the Arctic. Now there’s a lot of speculation on where these owls come from but we don’t really know. Owls from one clutch are known to appear in very distant areas. In a single clutch one was located in Newfoundand, another on Elsmere Island and another in Siberia. So we can’t say for certain what part of the Arctic these owls are coming from.
Baskin: Could you describe them.
Bannick: Well the snowy owls grow up and live and disperse from a very unpredictable place. Lemming pops in any given area will skyrocket and they’ll plummet precipitously and that may happen within a season. So there are a number of adaptations that owls make to be able to adjust to this very unpredictable habitat.
Now when I was going to the Arctic I was afraid of other things. I knew the Arctic is home to the polar bear one of the few animals on earth that still hunts human beings. So I had talked to the researcher in advance of going and said I really want to go to the Arctic to study the snowy owls but I’m worried about the polar bears , and he said, Don’t worry when you’re up there the ice will be out and the polar bears will be out. Well, when I arrived in Barrow the ice was completely in. It was a blanket of ice from the shore out into the Arctic sea. I was concerned. I had arrived at the airport and was already hearing about polar bears in the same area that I was going to be in my blind for the next several days. So I walked out toward that area and I came upon a gentleman, most of the people in Barrow are either scientists or researchers, and I came upon this one guy and he was working on a skim bow. And I said, Excuse me, sir, I’m going to be out on the tundra for the next week photographing the snowy owls. Should I worry about the polar bears? And he says, Let the bear decide. And I go a bit further and I come upon another guy working with his dogs and I ask him should I worry about the polar bears I’m going to be out with the owls and he says it’s up to the bear. And to me that was very telling and very symbolic for the whole Arctic region.
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