Where are all the owls?
Great gray owl during the 2022 mating season
Most folks unless you are specifically focused on photographing great gray owls probably do not realize there is concern over their numbers this year. For the average person you might ask when did they last see an owl and they might reply "Come to think of it, its been a while": That is because they are not out every day in what is now their mating season looking for them. People do not realize they are pretty scarce right now.
Owls are easy to spot during the winter seasons due to the bare branches
To put it all in context let me compare this mating season to previous ones. I live in a region where I can find great gray owls all year long. I usually through the summer and fall months see one every two or three weeks, and as we move into the fall and closer to Christmas every week or two as the trees become bare. By mid-January to mid-March when they are actively mating and preparing for owlets they are out at all times of the day. By mid-February I will see them on a daily basis, sometimes three or four different owls a day. This year there is nothing. and I mean nothing. For an area like mine where they are plentiful I am not finding them in their normal locations. I have taken to asking folks that live in my region "Have you seen an owl in your area lately?". Almost everyone gives that same response as above "Come to think of it, its been a while". I am out every sunrise and sunset looking and nothing. I have gotten a few leads but nothing has panned out.
Great gray owl during 2022 mating season on this day I found three different owls
So where are all the owls? I have a theory on that, which I am exploring. Normally great gray owls will every seven or eight years go through an event called an irruption. During an irruption the owls move out of the Boreal Forest to more southern locations. This occurs because the voles numbers are low that season and facing starvation the owls move further south out of their normal range looking for food. When this happen you hear about it all over social media, as folks are spotting great gray owls where they normally do not see them. So has an irruption happened? I think not as no excited Californians are posting about great gray owls hanging out in their back year.
Great gray owl enjoying a vole, their primary food source in early July
When I posted on some social media sites that I was concerned about their low numbers I had folks postulated theories about the amount of snow, stating snow levels might have forced them deep into the bush. Well last year we had way more snow and the owls were around but I followed up on that and using my research background dove into research papers and found studies that spoke about owls thriving in areas with four to five feet of snow. Further in mating season they are out looking for a mate regardless of snow levels so I do not believe this theory is viable. Another observation is that this phenomenon of scarce great gray owl numbers is not limited to where I live in Northern Alberta, from British Columbia to Ontario and south into the very popular spot of the Sax-Zim Bog in Minnesota photographers like me who are passionate about great gray owls are not finding them. If it was snow levels it would not be so wide spread.
Great gray owls easily hunted in four to five feet of snow last winter
So where are they? My theory and is a shocking one, they are dead. Yes I said it dead. The avian influenzae which started impacting waterfowl and geese last April is 90-100% fatal in raptors. The avian influenzae spreads rapidly through waterfowl and geese because they travel and commune in large numbers. Hundreds if not thousands of geese can be seen migrating together. Last year and now in hindsight I am kicking myself I did not stop and take photos I saw fields, and I mean full fields of hundreds of dead snow geese if not thousands on a quarter section of land. Waterfowl numbers were seriously low last year and the government of Alberta continues to track the outbreak. From the UK to Canada and into the US many people are worried about a variety of bird species.
A flock of common merganser these waterfowl like to stay in groups making it easier for avian influenzae to spread
So how does a virus like the avian influenzae make it from waterfowl to a great gray owl? Scavenger birds like ravens and crows will eat dead birds, so make a happy meal of a mallard that is dead from influenzae. Great gray owls usually eat voles however, ravens and crows will pester the owls when they see them and on occasion a great gray owl will have enough of the pestering and kill a raven and enjoy a little feast and just like that virus has moved from a duck to a raven to an owl.
When great gray owls get pestered by ravens they sometimes attack
I am truly concerned about what their current numbers are and what percentage of the population has been lost. And as I think of the migrating birds preparing to come back to my area this summer, I wonder what will return? Will the red necked grebes that nest in my area more than any other place in North America return? What about the American white pelican, double crested cormorants, common terns, American kestrel, bald eagles and red tail hawks? Last year the decrease in waterfowl was noticeable, American kestrels were scarce, I did not even see one pied billed grebe and I regularly experienced dead or dying pelicans on my kayaking trips.
A dying pelican, it is emaciated and had no ability to fly
As I try to confirm this theory I would love to hear from you and what you are noticing where you live. I am informally gathering data to use to spar action, With action we can hopefully help all these species populations to bounce back.