Owls visited our fair city last weekend and kids were there in droves to see them.
Licensed wildlife rehab maven and Massachusetts resident Patricia Bade (given the punchy name “Owl Woman” by her Penobscot elders before she could say “boo”) brought her un-releasable saw-whet owl and screech owl to Maynard Ecology Center for a family program on Sunday, February 9, 2014. The venerable Friends of Fresh Pond Reservation and the Cambridge Water Department sponsored the visit. Much hootin’ (the three- to seven-year-olds) and hollerin’ (the babes in arms) resounded through the halls of the center, housed in the basement of Neville Place, an assisted living community within spitting distance of Fresh Pond.
Compared to the snowy owl, these species are diminutive. Bade spread her arms to illustrate a snowy’s wingspan—five feet. She’d gotten up close and personal to an injured snowy owl brought to her recently, though it had expired upon arriving her doorstep. “She was magnificent,” reports Bade, who examined the owl afterward.
Snowy owls such as the one Bade examined have appeared in large numbers this year in Greater Boston.
The first consideration in an upswing sightings of any predator (such as the foxes seen in residential areas of North and West Cambridge earlier in the fall) must be the status of their prey population. There are multiple factors, however, behind the snapshot of what’s plentiful and what’s not in a “food web” (think food chains, intersecting) at any given time.
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology reported that by late November 2013,
the first wave of owls was making headlines (literally: see this article in the NYT and this article) in even the greatest metropolitan areas of the Northeast. Numerous visuals show the distribution of these movements, and one project has sought to take advantage of this unique opportunity to track the movements of these birds (check out Project SNOWStorm). It appears that a combination of factors may be responsible for this season’s invasion, but the jury is still out as to what is causing this influx. Are these movements the results of an overabundance of rodent prey items in portions of eastern Canada yielding a bumper crop of young Snowy Owls that are dispersing en masse?
Climate is also the elephant in the room.
The Cornell Lab continues,
Or is the movement we are seeing part of a much larger set of changes occurring in the Arctic related to rapidly changing climate?
Whether the elephant is merely in the room examining its cuticles rather than causing tremors we may not know. Science doesn’t allow for leapfrogging, but it does allow for educated guesses, labelled as such.
In her response to an adult asking why so many snowys showed up at Logan Airport this winter, Bade said the landscape there resembled their home turf—the tundra. There’s a little more to the story, however. These tundra mammal-predators, during the period December through April, apparently travel to openings in the Arctic sea-ice to feed on waterfowl, who are in turn using that type of environment because they can feed there. The 2013-2014 “irruption” of Hedwig and her crew at places like Logan, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports may represent a signal departure from that practice, perhaps by necessity rather than by choice.
Put yourself in Hedwig’s shoes, and wonder whether, like the itinerant snowy owls, increasing numbers of humans will need to seek something that “looks like home.” Wonder whether humans will need to take refuge from our coastal cities or our failed fields of plenty. Wonder whether, in the coming decades, human migration by necessity rather than by choice, will be on the upswing. Even if that possibility seems like something you can’t swallow—dystopia doesn’t, admittedly, go down well—keep those snows in the mind’s eye. That complexity, incorporating vast flocks of many species, the worldwide bird migration patterns interdependent on food webs; the operation of those food webs in cities, towns, rural areas—whether in airport, marshland, watershed, or suburb, it behooves adults to try to grasp a piece of this puzzle, and to get our children hootin’ and hollerin’ like owls and coyotes and slithering like snakes in the meantime.