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Why this winter’s snowy owl visit captivates us

A female Snowy Owl’s brood patch is visible as she returns to the nest. Credit: Paul Bannick

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.

The population of the lemmings, how wet that year might be, how dry the year might be, whether climate change is having a huge impact on the tundra: All of these things make a very unpredictable environment even more precarious for the animals living there. So we’re blessed to have these animals. Wherever they came from, there was a productive breeding year and when they come down here they also need habitat where they can rest, and hunt and survive unmolested until they head back up to the Arctic, wherever they came from or to new places — they’re nomads— to breed. And it reminds us we have a part in this too.

Baskin: Let’s address a subject that came to my mind when I heard that snowy owls were coming here but others discounted — climate change. You address it in your 2008 book.

Bannick: It’s really interesting because the polar bear has been one of the symbols of the dangers of climate change and when I look at the polar bear, a close relative of the grizzly, I think of the snowy owl. Both those animals are under threat because climate change is occurring and people can debate why it’s occurring and how much of a role we play, but no one can deny its occurring. And one of the impacts of climate change is that habitats move north and they move up in elevation.

You have to move up or north to find an equivalent habitat. Well if you live in the top of the world, there’s no where else to go.

Baskin: If one were to see a snowy owl, what is the best advice you have?

Bannick: This is a really tricky one. We only protect what we love and we only love what we know. And I think it’s great for people to have experience with the snowy owls — watching them, watching where they fit into their habitat, watching their behavior. But snowy owls are shy sometimes. Some are more tolerant. And like any other wild animal we have to be careful not to change behavior. This is a tricky one. Well with a snowy owl if it opens its eyes, if it flies during the day, if it defecates, if it changes perches while you’re watching it, you’re probably altering that behavior.

The best thing to do is to pick a spot, a distance away where the behavior is not changing and I hesitate to say what that distance is because it’s going to vary depending on the owl, and stay. Stay in one place and watch what happens. The challenging behaviors are the ones where people are pursuing the bird and then the bird moves and they continue to pursue it, that’s more challenging for the animal because the animal is using up resources which it needs to catch more food.   

Baskin: What drew you to writing The Owl and the Woodpecker and what are the comparisons?

Bannick: Well my life passion is conservation and I believe it all starts with habitat and I love the animals. but we need to build resiliency into the habitats so the habitats can be sustained and then the wildlife will return or repopulate or whatever. But how do you bring the habitat alive without the eyes of a creature that we can relate to? And I was always struck by when I backpacked or kayaked and then camp at night and every night, I would hear a different owl, and I thought about it and as I researched a bit I learned that it’s not just the spotted owl that’s an indicator species. The spotted owl, as many people know, is an indicator species of wet coastal old growth forest. But the flammulated owl is an indicator species for ponderosa pine forest, and the burrowing owl is an indicator species for short grass prairie,  the short eared owl for wet meadows, and the long eared owl for shrub step. And in the Southwest the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl for the Sonoron riparian areas and, of course, the snowy owl for the Arctic. The list goes on. So by telling the story of these owls my hope is that I make the habitat alive and have people learn the variety of habitats.

More than half of the owl species are cavity nesters. Each of those cavity nesters prefers a hole of a certain size. Most of those holes are created by wood peckers. So many owls have specific species of woodpeckers they rely upon for their homes. And there are many other interconnections between these two species and between their habitat and between them and their habitat.

Baskin: But not the snowy in particular.

Bannick: Not the snowy. Where the snowy nests, there are no woodpeckers and they don’t nest in the cavities. So no. Human have obviously been drawn. It seems impossible for people to have an ambivalent reaction to owls. Something about owls causes us to project power and spirituality and wisdom or foreboding all of these powerful emotions or sense we project these onto the owls. A friend of mine from Ethiopia told me that owls were a sign that someone was going to die. I heard in another culture that owls meant bad luck. But the Plains Indians saw the owls as the priests of the prairie dog town and the Ainu of Hokkaido believed that the Blakiston’s fish owls were the guardians of the villages. And the first recognizable art of prehistoric caves are the drawings of snowy owls on caves in France. So, I think it’s the fact that owls have eyes in front of their faces — their large eyes, rounded faces — they remind us of ourselves maybe even of children and so we tend to have some sympathy towards them and we’re intrigued by them.

I wanted to correct something. When the snowy owls come here from far away they remind us of how interconnected everything is. The snowy owls have arrived here but without our stewardship and without our stewardship of places they rely upon to survive the winter, they will not be able to breed in the Arctic. Without us tackling climate change and other problems in the Arctic, we will not be able to see the snowy owls back here. And it reminds us how small the earth is. Snowy owls are nomadic; they’re not migratory. They’re irruptive meaning they appear unpredictably. And, as I mentioned before, they arrive in the places that most resembles the tundra. Coming first into the plains of Canada, then the plains of the U.S., then the Great Lakes region, then the Northeast Coast and the Northwest coast.

They’re choosing areas with open grassy expanses that look like their tundra home. Now, right now, they do have places to go. It’s hard to know where would they be going if we didn’t have these places and where were they going when other places might have been available to them. So it’s hard to know.

Do they have enough territory here to come to? I’m not sure. But right now they do remind us of our responsibility.

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