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Voyageur's Best Features of 2005


More than 3,000 owls have visited Minnesota as of this week
by Kim and Cindy Risen  |  March 8, 2005

Visitors from all over the United States are flocking to our area to see the large concentration of northern owls that have come south this winter. As many of these birds are concentrating in area fields and bogs, Aitkin County has become the destination of choice for birdwatchers hoping to see these north-woods owls.

Mark Alt, president of the Minnesota Ornithologists Union (MOU), reports on the MOU listserve that Peder Svingen, MOU Records Committee Chair, has tallied reports thus far approaching 2,500 Great Gray Owls, more than 300 Northern Hawk Owls and more than 400 Boreal Owls in Minnesota as of this week.

This compares to last year’s more typical numbers of 35 Great Gray Owls, six Northern Hawk Owls, and one Boreal Owl for Minnesota. Each of this year’s totals represents the highest number ever documented in the state in a single winter season. The MOU is also conducting a survey of the amount of money spent in Minnesota while birders are visiting the state looking for owls, the amount reported so far is over $100,000 and counting.

While the impressive Great Gray Owls visiting our area in such large numbers are getting most of the media attention there are a few other species of visiting owls around to be seen. The Northern Hawk Owls sitting in the very tops of the trees are fairly easy to find, however, the most coveted owl for birdwatchers is the one that is the hardest to find.

I guess if they were easy, they wouldn’t be on the most wanted list for the birders visiting our area. The bird in question is the Boreal Owl.

This tiny owl is also one of the woodland owls moving south from Canada in search of small mice and rodents to feed upon. The Boreal Owl is mostly nocturnal, but can occasionally be found roosting in the sunshine on the edge of a wooded area during the day. Once in a while a Boreal Owl can be seen hunting during the daylight hours, mostly on cloudy days, but they much prefer hunting at night. Those seen hunting during the day are most likely very hungry and are nearing the starvation point.

In fact, the Great Gray Owls and Northern Hawk Owls that have been found dead, usually from car strikes, have for the most part been healthy, well-fed birds. The exception seems to be Boreal Owls; most of the dead Boreal Owls turned in this winter seem to have died from starvation. It is much more difficult for such small owls to get through the deep snow and ice pack to catch prey.

Boreal Owls are very small, only weighing about 110 to 160 grams and measuring about 8-9 inches in length. The similar Northern Saw-whet Owl is slightly smaller than the Boreal; they are very tiny owls indeed. The facial patterns of these two owls can be used to tell them apart. Boreal Owls have a dark outline to the facial disks, a yellowish tip to the end of the beak and a heavily spotted forehead, while Northern Saw-whet Owls have dark beaks, more streaking in the forehead and lack the black outline to the face.

The Saw-whet Owl is much more common and they can be seen with a little luck in our area most years. Boreal Owls do breed in Minnesota in small numbers, mostly in the northeast part of the state. They build nests in holes previously used by woodpeckers in mixed conifer and deciduous forests. During the summer months their diet of small mammals is expanded when they also feed on moths and insects.

Owls are fascinating birds and with this winter’s invasion of the owls of the north, many people are learning to enjoy these beautiful birds. If anyone spots a Boreal Owl, we would love to know where they are being seen. Contact us about the sightings and we will get the information to the Minnesota Ornithologists Union to add to the collected data about these wonderful birds.

This article first appeared in the March 8, 2005 issue of the Voyageur Press.