P.E.I. snowy owl population may decrease by years end


A replica of a snowy owl is proudly perched in the Wildlife Technology classroom at Holland College in Charlottetown.  Conway photo.     

   Snowy owls are rarely seen in P.E.I. because they tend to stay in areas such as Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec before they migrate back to the arctic tundra, says Conservation and Wildlife Technology lab assistant Dwaine Oakley.

     However, since the food supply had grown during the summer months, the snowy owl population has increased, he said.

     “With the growing number in adult and one-year-old owls, there is a fight over the now crashed food supply.”

     The older owls have more experience hunting and have a much better chance to find food, which leaves the younger owls at a disadvantage and a number of them will eventually starve, Oakley said.

     “Three owls were brought into the vet college, which were heavily emanciated, which means they were starving to death and their breast bone was sticking out.”

     “For birds who are healthy and plump, you can’t see or feel the bone in the front because the muscle and tissue are leveled with it.”

     The owls which were treated at the vet college that day were year-old birds who didn’t have enough time to hone their skills for gathering food, he said.

     “They didn’t eat enough to build up their fat reserves and because of this they are not able to feed off of their fat reserves and they slowly starve to death.”

     However, starvation is not the only threat to the safety of these owls. Oakley said the birds who are not used to seeing such things as power lines and cars are more prone to injuries caused by collision.

     Common injuries include damage to the eye and broken wings. Without treatment and rehabilitation, these injuries can result in death, he said.

     “I remember one of the owls which was shown on the CBC had a broken wing. The vet college was able to successfully put a pin in the wing.”

     He said the bird is now in a large cage and is able to stretch its joints.

      “It will soon be sent to either Nova Scotia or New Brunswick to a rehabilitation centre.”

     The bird will stay at the centre, where it will undergo physiotherapy until it has had enough exercise and is it healthy enough to achieve extended flight, he said.

     “It will be released back here in P.E.I., hopefully around mid-to-late spring, because that is when the snowy owls migrate north.”

     There are other reasons why the snowy owl population in P.E.I. will likely decrease within the next year.       

     The population of lemmings in 2008, which is a main food source for the snowy owl, said Ken Mayhew, information officer of Fish, Forests, and Wildlife.

     “With the population of the prey rising in an area in which the owls spend their time during migration, it is only natural for the population of the predators to increase as well.”

     Mayhew expects the snowy owl population on the Island to go down as early as next year.

     With the population of the prey decreasing, the owls will likely migrate, he said.

     “The owls begin to look for additional hunting areas or a new habitat once the food source in the area they are currently in collapses.”

     Another other reason for the likely decrease in the snowy owl population is because some of the population is beginning to die off because, as Oakley said, a lot of the birds are not yet fully developed.

     “For the most part the mortality rate of the owls is in the first year birds within their population who are not fully established hunters.”

     “This is all part of a natural cycle. It is not an unusual part of the cycle but it is not common either.”

     Mayhew also said another reason for the increase in snowy owl sightings is because they hunt during the day and with a lack of snow, the white birds are going to stand out.

     “Readers should really enjoy them while they can because the snowy owls really are a beautiful sight.” 


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