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A rehabilitating Barred Owl at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science
A rehabilitating Barred Owl at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science

Barred Owl struggled through tough winter

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This winter's record-breaking snows have taken a toll on our roads and our roofs. But we humans aren't the only ones having a hard time. Barred Owls in New York and Vermont have been struggling to hunt prey under the deep snow pack. So the nocturnal hunters have been getting creative - and showing up in unexpected places. Angela Evancie has more.

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(Evancie) Sue Wetmore of Brandon, Vermont is an avid birder.  She’s also a photographer – and this year, her album is full of photos of Barred Owls.

(Wetmore) [flipping through album] So we hit Charlotte, uh, yeah, this was in Charlotte.  So we had that owl, then we got to Leicester and we had two more that same day.  We had three owls in one day!

(Evancie) Wetmore waits until the perfect moment to photograph the owls.  She saw one a few weeks ago in Brandon.

(Wetmore) But the owl was sitting in the shade.  So I just kept walking up towards him.  And finally it just jumped from the shade into the sun, and I got my picture.

(Evancie) The words “sun” and “Barred Owl” don’t usually go together.  The owls are nocturnal, and hunt under the cover of night.  But this winter, daytime sightings have been on the rise.

(Smith) One day when I was driving along the east end of Lake Ontario in southern Jefferson and Northern Oswego county right along the lake, within probably two hours I saw four barred owls out hunting at two o’clock, three o’clock in the afternoon.  That’s extraordinary. 

(Evancie) That’s Gerry Smith.  He’s a consulting ecologist and North Country ornithologist based in Barnes Corners.  He says there are several reasons that owls have been hunting during the day.

(Smith) First and foremost, I’m theorizing we’ve had some birds come in from Canada.  I can’t prove that, but there are a lot more Barred Owls around than I’m used to.  Secondly, our local birds may have had a pretty good breeding season.  And thirdly, this has been a tough winter.  This has been sort of an old fashioned winter.  When that happens, the birds definitely are food-stressed.

(Evancie) So there are more owls around, which means more competition for food.  And because of deep snow pack, the owls have been having trouble hunting their prey.

(Smith) These critters are hunting small and medium sized mammals.  And the more snow cover that you have, it’s sort of like a bomb shelter for the small mice and things.  They get under it, they can still move around in their tunnels, they can still feed, but it makes it much tougher for the owls to get at them. 

(Evancie) Chris Rimmer is the Director of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.  He says that when owls are desperate, they’ll go anywhere.

(Rimmer)  So they are food stressed.  Which takes them outside of their comfort zone to places where they may find more concentrated food, which could be near birdfeeders, along roadways where the rodents have to cross.

(Evancie)  This may mean more viewings, but it puts the owls at risk.  Owls that dive down for prey on the road often get hit. 

[door opening]

(Oliver) This is our intensive care area…

(Evancie) Meghan Oliver is the Wildlife Services Manager at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.  She’s in charge of rehabilitating owls that arrive with head trauma and broken bones.

(Oliver) [opening an enclosure] This is one of our owls right here…

(Evancie) Some of the owls in the ICU are alert.  They look you right in the eye and click their beaks loudly [sound of beak clicking].  Others look woozy and depressed.

(Oliver) [opening an enclosure] Here’s another example of an owl that’s a little bit out of it still.  You can see his eyes are not fully open and bright, and he’s blinking slowly and he’s not sitting on his perch.  So he seems a little bit, you know, he’s still out of it basically.

(Evancie)  The Vermont Institute of Natural Science has received thirty-nine Barred Owls so far this winter, and counting.  That’s up from just fourteen last winter.  Oliver says there’s one thing we can do to keep owls away from the roads:  Stop tossing things like apple cores out the car window.  The food attracts rodents, and the owls aren’t far behind.

(Oliver) We would love it if people stopped throwing food out their car windows…Save a lot of owls.

For North Country Public Radio, I’m Angela Evancie.

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