The Wild Side: Return of winter means return of owls
Well, it is that time of year again. Winter, certainly. The end of the calendar year, no doubt. Time to track winter severity for its impacts on deer, and do winter track surveys of fur bearers, sure. Not only that, but it is the time of year for an irruption (a sudden, rapid increase) of owls and other wintertime avian visitors. When owls irrupt in Wisconsin, reports of live and dead owl sightings go way up.
I am not sure why, but many people seem to share a high regard for owls. Maybe it is because we rarely see owls. They are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night and sleeping or inactive during the day. Maybe it is because they are so different from other birds. They can rotate their heads up to 270 degrees. Their relatively large eyes are accented by the feathery circles called facial disks that help direct sound to their ears. Their feathers are designed to give them almost soundless flight, so they can ambush their prey in the dark of night. They usually have a kind of eerie or other-worldly vocalization.
The owl is associated with magic, witchcraft and supernatural forces. They are also associated with wisdom and knowledge. I get a few complaints about owls, mostly about them eating poultry or rabbits from pens and yards, but most people are happy to see them.
It seems each winter, we have owls that move south into the Northwoods. It seems like great gray owls and snowy owls are common sightings. Last year, I had a number of reports of boreal owls, a few of which apparently died of starvation. These birds presumably head south to locations where the snow is shallower, and they are able to find food. Any time these birds turn up, they trigger excitement in the birding world. Bird enthusiasts “flock” to locations where these owls are reported to see and photograph them. This year, we have already had a strong showing of snowy owls, with 96 sightings being reported to eBird (ebird.org).
I mentioned sightings of live and dead owls increase. For some reason, when people find a dead owl, they either want to keep it or bring it to the DNR. Owls are a migratory bird protected under Federal and state laws, and are consequently not legal to possess. Sorry, but you can’t simply pick up an owl and have it mounted to display above your fireplace-or any migratory bird for that matter.
Anyone who possesses a taxidermy mount of this type needs to have a Special Purpose Possession Permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and a state-issued scientific collector’s permit. These permits are not easy to get, and may only apply to certain species (e.g. no eagles), and are usually only for educational or scientific purposes.
People also commonly bring me an owl thinking it might be good for a school. A generous thought, but schools also need to obtain these special permits; they would also be facing an expense to have the bird prepared and mounted that usually exceeds $200 per specimen. If someone wants to provide an owl to a school, they would need to coordinate handling the carcass with the school, the DNR Conservation Warden, and the USFWS. The school principal must first submit a letter of request to the USFWS. If approved, a letter of authorization goes to the school. The principal then contacts the warden, who puts a special tag on the bird, which goes to the taxidermist with documentation.
If you see a live boreal, snowy or great gray owl, you can report the sighting on eBird or contact Ryan Brady (715-685-2933 or Ryan.Brady@wisconsin.gov). If you find a dead owl, you are welcome to contact your local biologist to see if we would like it brought in, but it is probably advisable to leave it where you found it.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.