Dec 23 2013
Joe Monahan of Boone County, Iowa generated a heated discussion on PABIRDS last week when he urged folks to save snowy owls by feeding them store-bought mice. According to Joe the owls are starving: “The dead owls found here that were necropsied were found to be emaciated. Which is why I decided to start feeding the one remaining in our area.”
His idea raised ethical issues but Joe’s argument was that, based on those found dead, snowy owls are starving and ought to be fed. The core of the discussion came down to: Were the dead owls evidence of a starving population? Will feeding help or hurt?
Deciding the leading cause of death of a population — and what to do to help that population — based on those “found dead” is quite misleading. If you visited Moore, Oklahoma on May 11 the majority of people found dead were killed by a tornado. If we acted on that very real but skewed statistic we would move people out of Oklahoma because it’s a state known to have many tornadoes. However, the real leading causes of death in Oklahoma are heart disease and cancer, as elsewhere in the US. Moving people away from Tornado Alley would not help and could hurt — upsetting some so much that they’d die prematurely (the autopsy would say it was heart disease).
Snowy owl studies by Paul Kerlinger, Norman Smith and colleagues show that as a population, wintering snowies are not starving at all. Kerlinger’s study says: “Trauma-induced mortality was the cause of death in 64% of all cases, and starvation was implicated in just 14%, a figure the authors felt was likely inflated by several factors. Almost half of all snowy owls examined had moderate to heavy fat, and many of those lacking fat had suffered massive injuries.” (Note that a bird that’s suffered massive injury starves because it cannot hunt.) And, “of the 20 snowy owls Norman Smith satellite-tagged at Logan Airport, only four died – one from a plane strike and three from gunshot wounds.” (People do hunt snowies up north.)
Will feeding help or hurt the birds? Joe described his feeding method: Holding a live mouse by the tail he would wait for the owl to fly toward him, then he toss the mouse when the owl was within 100 yards. Or he tossed a live mouse on a gravel road for the owl to retrieve.
Since the real leading cause of death in snowy owls is trauma, Joe’s well intentioned effort will probably backfire. The owls will learn to trust humans and roads and may die prematurely, hit by a car or a bullet.
For everyone’s well being, learn more before you act.
“I am not starving,” says the snowy owl.
(photo by Shawn Collins)
p.s. A big new snowy owl study has just been launched. Click here for details.