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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Beautiful birds!

Snowy owl invasion puts natural resources professor in spotlight

KINGSTON, R.I. –Natural Resources Science Professor Peter Paton has been in the news a great deal this winter providing expert commentary about an unprecedented invasion of snowy owls from the Arctic into the Northeast and Midwest. Paton has appeared in the Westerly Sun and Providence Journal and on Rhode Island Public Radio, and this week he was interviewed for a report on the owls on the CBS Evening News.

“Snowy owls are highly visible, they’re active during the day, and they’re charismatic, so their appearance in our area has generated some excitement,” he said. “And they evoke a lot of interest because of their role in the Harry Potter movies. It’s almost a mythical creature that has come down from the North.”

Standing 2 feet tall with a 5-foot wingspan, mature male snowy owls are pure white, but younger birds have gray barring on their white plumage. It’s the immature birds that Paton says have been arriving in the area in large numbers.

“A lot of their migration is driven by the abundance of food – lemmings – in the Arctic,” he said. “But my guess is that last summer there was also high production of snowy owl chicks, and the immature birds aren’t strong enough hunters to find food in the Arctic in winter, so they’re dispersing down here.”

Paton estimates that 20-30 snowy owls have passed through Rhode Island this winter – far more than the one or two that typically show up in the state each year – and they are likely to stay here for a month or so before moving on to find food elsewhere. He said that while the owls typically feed on rodents, they appear to be feeding primarily on ducks in our area.

“They like to sit on the rocks or on the dunes and wait for the ducks to come close, and then they dive in and catch them,” he said.

The most reliable place for observing snowy owls in Rhode Island this winter has been at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, but they have also been observed regularly at coastal locations from Westerly to Providence, including Misquamicut, Moonstone and Narragansett beaches and Beavertail State Park.