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Snowy owls thrive as Alaskan lemming population booms
Anchorage Daily News


September 06, 2006

BARROW, Alaska -- Snowy owls that wing over the tundra and perch on telephone poles like giant white eggs are having their most productive summer in at least 15 years, researchers say.

They're everywhere you look in this coastal village, spreading long wings as they soar among weather-stripped homes or dotting sandy banks to avoid blistering Arctic winds.

Why are there so many? Mainly because the lemmings they love to eat are booming.




Barrow and the surrounding North Slope - the nation's northernmost community - is the only place in the United States where snowy owls gather to breed. If the food is good enough, some stick around for the frigid winters.

For that reason, they're Barrow's unofficial bird. An oversized carving of the snowy owl, its Halloween-yellow eyes looking more friendly than predatory, greets visitors from the welcome sign near the airport.

Even the native Inupiaq name for Barrow - population 4,200 - honors the owl. Ukpiagvik means "The place where we hunt snowy owls."

That practice, however, ended years ago, said Charles Brower, a broad-chested man with a graying moustache. They were once hunted for food in lean times, supplementing caribou and whale in the local diet.

But tastes changed, along with needs, after Yankee whalers introduced canned goods at the turn of the last century and modern food such as frozen chicken began arriving on planes, he said.

Poaching, in which the animals are shot and left to die on the tundra, has also fallen, said Denver Holt, who's studied the animals since 1992.

On average, five were killed that way a few years ago, he said. But in 2004, the local tribal government unanimously adopted an ordinance prohibiting people from handling owls, and therefore killing them, on lands owned by the village corporation. Since the law was passed, researchers have found only one poached owl a year, Holt said.

But the key reason for the snowy owl explosion is that lemmings - famous for their boom-bust cycles - are having a fabulous year, said Holt, who in 1988 founded the nonprofit Owl Research Institute in Montana.

Scientists can't explain the lemming explosion, he said. They do know that when the rodents are scarce, snowy owls don't do as well.

They're among the world's largest owls, weighing up to five pounds with wing spans near five feet. They even kill foxes, Holt said. But they may not get the nutrition they need to breed if the 2-ounce lemming - 95 percent of their diet - is scarce.

When the rodents are abundant, the owls will catch them by the dozens outside the clawed-out tundra burrows where females nest and lay eggs. But if lemmings can't be found, the owls fly to Russia or Canada's Arctic to find prey.

"No one knows how they figure it out," but the owls never miss a good lemming year in Barrow, Holt said.

Snowy owls aren't considered endangered or threatened, but their numbers are unknown. They're just too hard to track, he said.

Researchers monitoring nests outside the village this year counted about 150 chicks that survived to flight age. That's almost double the biggest previous year on record - 80 chicks fledged in 1995, Holt said.

The boom is good for tourism in Barrow, said Fred Zegarac, who owns the Arctic Tour Co. Some birders come to Barrow primarily to see the snowy owl, he said. Japanese tourists, especially, like to photograph them.


Contact Alex deMarban at ademarban(at)
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