Snowy owls are struggling in the Northwest Territories this year — several sightings of owls too weak to fly have been reported to the N.W.T. Department of Environment, which said "nutritional stress" may be the cause.

In a Facebook post, the department said owls have been found in weak and lethargic conditions. It has also recovered three carcasses: two in the Dehcho area and one in the South Slave region.

The department calls this a "new issue" for the territory, in just the past week and a half.

"These are typically juvenile snowy owls that are emaciated, and just not been able to find enough food," said Trent Bollinger, regional director of the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.

"We do look at these mortalities in our diagnostic labs, to make sure that there isn't something else going on — some new disease or other health issue," Bollinger said.

More owls competing

There is good news though. Bollinger says he's tested dozens of owl carcasses and found no viruses or diseases. He believes there's just more owls out there competing for food.  

"We have seen this sort of eruption of snowy owls, and high mortality in snowy owls, in the past," he said. "This usually reflects a good production of snowy owls in the Arctic in the spring and summer."

Snowy Owl Northwest Territories

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environment calls this a "new issue" for owls in the territory, in just the past week and a half. (N.W.T. Department of Environment and Natural Resource/Facebook)

James Duncan, an owl expert from Manitoba, agrees not all young owls survive their first year.

"So what we may be seeing, is that some of the young of the year are having trouble adapting to different food sources, or developing the hunting skills they need to survive."

He said more will be known when volunteers undertake a bird count this Christmas.

"When that data comes in, we will know if this is part of a bigger influx," Duncan said.

The N.W.T. Department of Environment has collected samples from the owls to send to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.