MARQUETTE, LUCE COUNTIES, MI - People across Michigan this winter have been reporting an influx of snowy owls from their Arctic tundra home territory.
The white birds, with piercing yellow eyes and a nearly 5-foot wingspan, are North America’s largest owls, by weight. The reason the owls unpredictably travel so far south is because sometimes in massive movements known as “irruptions” is linked to food supply, the number of chicks the owls produce in a given year and weather.
Snowy owls often arrive in Michigan weakened and starving, dehydrated and infested with mites. Others die along their extended flight paths, which have taken them as far south this winter as Kansas and all along the Great Lakes region.
When the owls move south, Michigan Department of Natural Resources offices typically receive several phone calls reporting snowy owl sightings or birds appearing sick or injured. Many of those calls were received in the Upper Peninsula in mid-October.
Snowy owls are protected by federal law and it is illegal to possess an owl, its feathers or body parts without proper permits. Researchers suggest contacting the DNR if an owl is found injured, sick or dead.
“When we receive a call regarding an injured bird, we will either have the caller drop the bird off at the DNR office or, if feasible, we will pick up the bird,” said Erin Largent, a DNR research wildlife technician at Marquette. “We then take the injured bird to the Gwinn-Sawyer Veterinary Clinic.”
The vet will assess damage to the owl. It may be euthanized if the injuries are too severe or treat the owl and transport it to a rehabilitator.
On Oct. 19, Jerry Maynard and Bob Jenson, co-founders of the Chocolay Raptor Center in Harvey, rescued a snowy owl from a municipal compost facility in Marquette. This owl was among those to arrive in the October influx.
“We got a call that it couldn’t fly and did not look healthy,” Maynard said. “Exam showed it to be seriously underweight and emaciated, and we could find no other injuries.”
The owl was heavily infested with mites. Maynard sprayed the bird to remove the mites and began treatments for dehydration.
During the first 24 hours, snowy owls being rehabilitated are tube-fed a special formula with easily digestible proteins and sugars. As owls recover, they eat frozen mice, rats, chicks and quail.
If all goes well, the owls are released back into the wild, often within a few weeks. Of six owls brought to the Chocolay Center from the original October influx, only two survived.
Meanwhile, sightings of owls continued throughout the state as 2015 came to a close, including a Nov. 23 report of a snowy owl sitting on the arm of a lamp post on the Mackinac Bridge
On Dec. 17, the DNR's Newberry office got a call about a snowy owl west of the town of Curtis in Mackinac County.
“The caller moved it from the center of the road to the side of the road and called me at home, and other folks called the office, so we all heard about it pretty early,” said Sherry MacKinnon, a DNR wildlife ecologist at the Newberry office.
This was a young owl, starving and unable to leave the roadway on its own. DNR staff fed the owl, dusted it for biting lice and brought it to the Chocolay Raptor Center.
One time there was a call about a dead snowy owl under a light post at a lakefront hotel in Marquette.
Some live owls are being tracked with solar-powered GPS transmitters. Owls are nicknamed and their movements are plotted on maps on the project website.
“Please resist the urge to try to catch these birds or to approach them too closely,” Maynard said. “It is far more likely that a quiet, unassuming snowy owl is just being a normal snowy owl.”
Earlier this month, a snowy owl found emaciated near Deer Park in northern Luce County was brought to the DNR office in Newberry and then to the Chocolay rehab facility.
Maynard said the bird is recovering well after initially consuming the formula, has gained weight, was recently moved to an outdoor cage and is expected to be released in a public event sometime over the next several weeks.
As spring arrives, the snowy owls will make their way back north to the Arctic.