The only survivor of six starving snowy owls rescued by the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society this season has been released.
The young male has spent the last three months being nursed back to health by MARS volunteers, and was released Friday close to the Shelter Bay Distillery south of Campbell River.
Named after a character on Sesame Street, Oscar was found in Port Hardy last November, severely emaciated and near death. He weighed only 800 grams and was too weak to move. Today, he weighs a healthy 1.6 kilograms.
“He was tube-fed fluids and a vitamin mix throughout the night during his first 10 days with us,” said a spokesperson for MARS. “We gradually introduce a ‘slurry of meat’ when the birds are able to digest it. Their favourite meal is lemmings, but we do not serve those here.”
In a cyclical pattern called irruptions, half-starved snowy owls have been flying 1,500 kilometers or more to Vancouver Island in search of food.
“They’re all starving,” said the MARS volunteer.
“By the time they get down here, they’re usually very thin. We’re finding them one-half to one-quarter of their normal weight. They might look OK because they are beautiful-looking birds with gorgeous feathers, but underneath, they can be skeletal.”
Ironically, it can be an abundance of Arctic lemmings that contributes to a food shortage for the next generation. Well-fed females lay up to 11 eggs in 11 days, with up to seven hatching into chicks.
That population boom, in turn, creates a shortage of food, with the parents staying behind and this year’s crop of snowies seeking food farther and farther afield.
Last year, a large number of snowy owls was found starving on the Lower Mainland. This year, Vancouver Island seems to be their destination of choice.
The yellow-eyed, black-beaked owls typically nest north of the tree line in the tundra and high Arctic, and are usually a rare sight in B.C.
The birds migrate from the Arctic tundra every few years, but are being spotted in places they have never been seen before, such as B.C., Texas, Kansas and Nebraska. The owls return to the tundra in the spring, for breeding season.
Out of their Arctic element, snowies seek open spaces to hunt on the Island, including airport lands, or even rooftops, as they find the forest unfamiliar.
As inexperienced hunters, “for every mouse they catch, they miss 10,” a MARS volunteer said.
If food is scarce, the birds will survive for six weeks on their bodies’ fat reserves.
They usually eat lemmings, arctic hare, ptarmigan, squirrels, raccoons, rats, moles, shorebirds, gulls, songbirds and ducks.
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