Manitoba wildlife refuge sees spike in starving, injured snowy owls

A refuge for orphaned and injured animals is seeing an influx in starving snowy owls.

Population boom could be putting pressure on the birds to fly south for prey, director says

A refuge for orphaned and injured animals is seeing an influx in starving snowy owls. 0:45

A local refuge for Manitoba wildlife is taking in more snowy owls than usual for this time of year.

Too weak to fly and in need of care, 15 snowy owls from across the province have been brought to the Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre in Ile des Chênes, Man., in the past two weeks. 

In most cases the owls died by the time they reached the centre in various states of emaciation, dehydration or starvation. Only five remain alive.

'This is very unusual'

At this time last year, the centre only had three snowy owls come into its care. Staff said they've seen more this year needing care than in any year in the last 10 years.

More snowy owls are being brought into the Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre this year than usual. (Erin Brohman/CBC)
"This is very unusual," said Dan Diawol, the director of the centre.

"People are pretty amazed that we're getting this many, but they're also very concerned: why are we getting so many and is it going to continue? That's our question, too."

The cause behind the spike could come down to a snowy owl population boom this year up north, he said. With more competition for the same prey — namely Arctic lemmings, a dietary staple for the birds — it could be the case that some snowy owls are being driven to starvation or further south in search of food.

"Unfortunately, by the time they get down south — and when I say 'south' it can be as far north as The Pas or Thompson — they're already starving and they get so weak they're not able to fly, so they can't catch any food to replenish themselves," Diawol said.

'Circle of life'

James Duncan, an owl biologist with Manitoba Conservation, says there's a reason for the seemingly sudden influx of snowy owls.

"Every number of years they have a great reproductive year up north, and they provide a larger number of young than they normally do because lemmings are in great supply," he told CBC News on Monday.

Duncan said if there is a larger number of young owls this year, it's normal that some of them would not survive the migration south to Manitoba.

"A high number of young don't make it to be a year old. That's kind of the circle of life," he explained.

"We're encountering some animals that are having a tough go of it, but not every snowy owl can survive the year, unfortunately."

Diawol said a lot of the snowy owls that get into trouble are juveniles that aren't as good at adapting to change as older birds.

"It's obviously due to a lack of food somewhere or somehow, we're not quite sure exactly yet," he said. "But it can be a balance of high populations of the owls and low populations of small rodents."

Duncan said after a bird survey is conducted over the Christmas holidays, he'll know for sure if 2015 is a record year for snowy owl numbers.

The Wildlife Haven Rehabilitation Centre hopes to release the five individuals currently in its care back where they were first found. In the meantime, the birds at the centre will stay in their enclosures while they're nursed back to health on a diet of frozen rats and mice.

Diawol added that in most cases if you come across an owl, it likely doesn't need your help. But, he said, people should phone the centre at 204-878-3740 if they ever have questions or come across an injured wild animal.


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