Snowy owls are dying all over B.C., likely because of an overly healthy population in the far north. The Prince George region has been a rarely used drop-in spot for the white Arctic birds over the years, and only as they passed on for places farther south, but in recent weeks there has been an influx.
The provincial government's fish and wildlife office in Prince George has received 29 sightings of live birds from around the city and 40 more from the broader region but several dead snowy bodies have also been brought in.
"They seem to have flooded in from the high arctic where they breed [and] they seem to be dropping like flies," said provincial wildlife biologist Doug Wilson. "I know of six dead ones, and another possible one, and a new body was just brought in today. All the ones I've seen have no meat on them, very light, knife-edge sternum, all consistent with starvation. The vast majority are young birds trying to set up winter territory for themselves, in unfamiliar grounds with unfamiliar prey."
UNBC professor and bird expert Ken Otter has received one of the bird bodies as well, and has been in close contact with Wilson about the owl issue. They agree it is something unheard of in their respective Prince George careers.
"Like the ones brought in to Doug at the ministry, this bird I have has very poor pectoralis [chest] muscles. You can feel the keel on it - that breast bone sticking right out, just like the one Doug has," Otter said. "I think Doug hit it right on the head. It seems we have a large number of juvenile birds that are dispersing out of the Arctic and we are probably finding that there is not enough food to sustain them around here at the moment. It is very sad, but there is not much you can do for them."
"These are essentially surplus birds from an overly abundant population somewhere else," said Wilson. "The snowy owl is not an endangered species, this is just part of a natural population cycle. It's great for bird watchers, but hard on the birds to go through this. We have never had snowy owls factor into the local Christmas bird count so this may be the year."
Wilson said there have already been other hints of strange and interesting birds, like two northern hawk owls and a long eared owl sighted recently. Neither are common to the area.
The bird count is happening Sunday. Contact Cathy Antoniazzi at cant...@telus.net if you'd like to be involved. No experience is necessary, just an interest in spotting birds of any description.
If any more snow owl bodies are located, please contact Wilson at 250-565-6135 or call the Ministry of Environment's main wildlife/pollution hotline at 1-877-952-7277 (RAPP). The two wildlife specialists are interested in studying these birds as much as possible, in case this becomes linked to broader environmental implications or in case this influx results in some of the snowy owls surviving and forming habitat bonds in this area.