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The Green Room: Who's 'Whoo'-Michigan's Owls

Now’s the time of year a few Snowy owls might arrive in Michigan, if we’re lucky.  In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores a few of Michigan’s owls:  the dangers they face, and why we should care.

Barbara Lucas (BL): It’s a frosty 6 a.m. at Whitefish Point, on Lake Superior in the UP.  Birders from all over have come to witness the massive numbers of raptors that gather and rest here during their migration.  All eyes are on a pint-sized owl, about to be banded.

Scott Weidensaul:  There’s only two records for boreal owl in Pennsylvania. 

BL: That’s a boreal owl? 

Weidensaul:  Yes, that’s a boreal. So that’s a big deal for me, to see a boreal. 

BL: I’m with Scott Weidensaul, renowned researcher and author, from Pennsylvania.

Weidensaul: This is the first time I’ve seen one in the hand like this.

BL: Another big deal would be to see a Snowy owl.  North America’s largest owl, the Artic is their home, but some do venture south to feed in the winter. Weidensaul says there’s concern.

Weidensaul: We’ve over-counted them tremendously.  We've recalculated that there's probably only about 28 to 30,000 snowy owls in the world. Snowy owls breed at the very highest latitudes in the northern hemisphere.

BL: He says their main food in the Arctic is the lemming, a small rodent whose habitat is shrinking.

Weidensaul: I think you could argue that Snowy owls are amongst the three or four species in the world that are most vulnerable and most immediately vulnerable to climate change.

BL: The past two winters an unusually high number of "Snowies" came south. Weidensaul is co-founder of Project Snowstorm, which attaches radio transmitters to track and better understand these special visitors. One thing’s clear:  venturing from wilderness to civilization is fraught with hazards.

Aaron Bowden:  Just like that—they get tangled up and we get them out.

BL: Teaming up with Project Snowstorm is the USDA’s Wildlife Services.  Aaron Bowden demonstrates how he traps raptors at Michigan airports—an average of one a day.  He releases them out of harm’s way.  Seems they’re drawn to the wide-open hunting grounds of runways, an attraction that can be fatal.

Bowden:  Caught three red-tailed hawks and the owl, yesterday.  Right prior to coming in, he was sitting on a taxi light 50 yards from the runway.

BL: A roomful of state and federal wildlife biologists watch enthralled as Dr. Brian Washburn of the USDA attaches a transmitter to the ivory white, golden-eyed owl Bowden trapped at the Grand Rapids airport.

Washburn: Almost done, Bud…  This is the first satellite tagging of a Snowy owl in Michigan and the second owl for Project Snowstorm in 2015.

BL: These Snowy owls are celebrities. 

Onlooker:  Where will you release these birds? 

Bowden:  It will be down in Chelsea, at the Waterloo Recreation Area. 

Onlooker:  Wow!  Really? Washtenaw birders are going to go crazy!

BL: They’re rare, and incredibly beautiful.  Upon release, he spreads huge wings and silently sails away.  A while later, we spy him resting in the distance, camouflaged perfectly against the snow.

Onlookers:  He's right there!  Do you see him?  Yep, I see him!

BL: That was last winter, before his Arctic summer of feasting on lemmings.  Now, it’s the time of year he might fly back to our part of the world—he and the 16 other Snowy owls tagged by Project Snowstorm.

BL: Eleven species of owls are found in Michigan. Not all are so rare around here!  I’m on the campus of Eastern Michigan University, with professor Michael Kielb. 

BL: Ever heard of anybody in Ypsilanti hearing an owl?  

Michael Kielb:  Oh yes, primarily screech owls, yes.

BL: He says Screech owls are generalists, which means they eat most anything from mice to insects.  And aren’t picky about where they call home, either--as long as they have a tree hollow for nesting.  He says that even in urban areas… 

Kielb:  Take a 100 acre chunk, there's a pair of owls. I would bet on that!

BL: In fact, I recorded this haunting sound [Screech owl hooting] …right from my front porch in Ann Arbor.  Asking around, it turns out lots of people are hearing screech owls in the city.   

BL: We’re at Bach School, on Ann Arbor’s west side, with Mr. Borgsdorf and the elementary students.  They tell me that for the past two years, a pair of Screech owls has been living in a maple tree right on the playground. 

Student:  Follow the tree trunk up to the dead branch…

BL: At first, there’s no owl to be seen, but then...

Students:  Wow, do you see it?  Yes, I see it, I see it!  So cool! 

BL: These owls are lucky no one has trimmed the end of the dead limb.  It’s short, so not a hazard, but still…

Kielb:  We tend to want to cut those, make everything neat, clean things up. 

BL: Professor Kielb says we should think twice about removing potential nesting sites, because we need our owls.

Kielb:  They're important for maintaining healthy predator prey cycles. When prey animals start to increase, we start to see plant problems--they're feeding on something!

BL: Landscape damage is one way to measure it.  The kids are more dramatic.

BL:  What would happen if they weren't eating the rodents? Student:  Rodents would be crawling on our toes right now!

BL: In addition to providing essential balance to the ecosystem, the owls provide inspiration. 

BL:  Have you ever seen it fly? 

Students:  Yes, It was so cool!  He had big wings, yes! They were huge! Like my wings now! For my costume. 

BL:  What's your costume?  

Student: Maleficent.

BL: Describing its markings…

Student: Dark grey on the rest of its body and then it has… 

Another student [interrupting]:  I think it can change colors.  Like it can change colors to camouflage in.

BL: While it doesn’t exactly change colors, it IS magically invisible, blending in perfectly with the tree bark.  I play a recording of a Screech owl.

Student: I've heard that before!

BL:  Do you know when. or where?

Student: When I was sleeping I kept waking up every now and then, and I keep hearing that noise. And I think it's a ghost outside so I go over to mommy and wake her up.  

BL: I ask Professor Kielb about threats to owls.  Topping his list of dangers is the chain saw.

Kielb:  Clearing areas of woodlands for housing developments, for business development, is always threatening.  Dead trees become really important!

BL:  He also cautions against the use of rat poison. 

Kielb:  You know, if you are poisoning six animals in an area, each one of those are easy to catch and all of a sudden the owl has a fairly large dose of rat poison.

BL: Whether it’s climate change, airplanes, poison, or chain saws—impacts add up, and Kielb believes we should value our owls.

Kielb:  Owls are just really neat critters!  You have to make an effort to hear them, you have to make an effort to see them, and that’s OK!

BL: From big, rare and snow-white, to small, grey, and common, owls touch something inside us.

BL:  When you heard that owl call how did it make you feel? Student: Happy. BL: Why? Student: Because it’s kind of calm, and when I'm calm I feel kind of relaxed and happy.

BL: For some, it’s their mystery and magic.

Student: It makes me feel like there's a ghost nearby. It's a scary feeling! I feel like Halloween is supposed to be here now. 

Another student:  It almost is—he he he he!


Project Snowstorm

Scott Weidensaul on threats to the Snowy owl
Snags: The Wildlife Tree

Whitefish Point Bird Observatory
Washtenaw Audubon Society

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.