A Bad Year to be a Mouse or Vole – Snowy Owls Are Here


Raptors are everywhere this year and Snowy Owls have been visiting again like last year’s irruption. Reducing the rodent population is good for gardeners though. Today, I am at our GardenFest meeting, planning for the event to be held in June.

But last week, I attended a talk on snowy owls at January’s Buffalo Ornithological Society meeting. I have been scanning open snow-covered fields in our area hoping to see more. I am only up to seeing nine so far.

I do love winter for all the bird life that can only be seen during our colder months. But it is time to start thinking flowers, at least for those of us involved in preparing events like garden walks and festivals.


Last year, the speaker at our birding meeting saw 89 as she participated in the Project SNOWstorm banding and count.


Owls landing at airports across our area need to be trapped and relocated. The birds have minimal experience with humans or machines, especially planes. Owls are heavy birds and have trouble getting out-of-the-way of planes, posing a great threat to aviation. Airports are some of the most reliable places to see the owls for birdwatchers.


Last year at JFK and LaGuardia, the Airport Port Authority took a hit for shooting the owls and much uproar from the public ensued. The policy was quickly changed to trap and relocation.


Snowy owl populations thrive in Northern Quebec and tend to follow four-year cycles, so our area may be seeing them come into Western New York for a few more winters.


How do they trap the owls for research and banding?

They use what is called a bow-net. It is a bit like a big spring-loaded hockey net, mouse trap contraption we were told. They bait it with a live pigeon. I bet you thought mice!


The trapper waves a pigeon above his head, the pigeon flaps frantically, then when the owl notices, the trapper stakes the jesses on the pigeon to the ground. The pigeon wears a protective leather jacket with blinders to keep it from the owl’s talons. The blinders help the pigeon to not see what is about to happen.

When the unsuspecting owl swoops in to snatch the anxious pigeon, the net springs up over it, harmlessly pinning it to the ground. The owl is banded and some are outfitted with a radio transmitter. The pigeon lives another day hopefully. No word on how many pigeons die from stress or fright. I do know birds are easily stressed, but owls take this process rather nonchalantly. We were told it is because they have little knowledge of people and it is why they settle down so quickly, just indignantly waiting for release.


I think the owl above was looking at me rather suspiciously! The one opening the post was surly taunting in his stare. See Nature and Wildlife Pics for a take on what a professional photographer posted on taking risks. Needless to say, I have more to add.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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45 Responses to A Bad Year to be a Mouse or Vole – Snowy Owls Are Here

  1. Interesting information, but I was really fascinated by the first photo. I love how it faded to white. How did you do that?

  2. Fascinating beings and what a set of photographs, Donna. I feel for poor condemned mice and voles though!

    • I felt bad for the pigeons. I was sure most of them died. I also know a raptors claws can penetrate leather gloves, so I would bet they get through those pigeon leather jackets. I got bit by an injured squirrel through heavy welding gloves. When an animal is trapped, it can be very strong for its size.

  3. Given the large numbers of Snowy Owls spotted on the Lake Erie waterfront, I suspect Ducks are in jeopardy, as well. A study done downstate during last year’s eruptions confirmed that these Arctic raptors are taking waterfowl, as well.

    I’ve done songbird banding and had an American Robin die from stress in my hands while I gently was conducting the standard examination. It is a precarious practice that offers a great deal of information on bird health and populations but I have not participated since that event. It disturbed me greatly, particularly since we determined this male Robin was brooding a nest. So many questions arose in my mind. What happened to the nest? Could the mother managed without her mate? Did the nestlings survive?

    I’m certainly not comfortable with the Snowy banding procedure feeling it borders on cruelty to the Pigeons. Some will say Pigeons are overpopulated and expendable but I find it difficult to see it that way, And tell that to the Pigeons!

    Still hoping to see my first Snowy of the year, Some friends and I scoped out the Dunkirk Airport on Sunday, which has had numerous sightings, but no luck for us. Beautiful photos, as always!

    • I questioned the use of pigeons too. I thought it cruel. The reason for the pigeon was so it flaps and the owl sees it. I guess waving a mouse would not have the same reaction. Some of the owls I saw this year are on the Lake and River waterfronts. Both the Outer and Inner Harbors had the Snowys. They were too far to photograph, but I do have a post coming up on my nature blog with crows mobbing the Snowy along the breakwall.

      As for bird stress, I watched a number of banders and I agree, the songbirds get very stressed. Try the Batavia Genesee County Airport, 4701 E Saile Dr. Batavia. I saw 4 there – the first one in this post was one. The flying owls were in fields in Batavia.

      • Yes, my pals have been out to the Batavia Airport a number of times and spotted Snowys there. Looking forward to your Crow post – Corvids continually trades places with the Black-capped Chickadees as my favorite birds. Nature is amazing and teaches us so much. Thanks, Donna!

  4. rose says:

    Donna, I’ve always thought you were such a talented photographer, but that first photo–wow and more wow! I was mesmerized by it. I’m glad to know that they have found a way to re-locate these beautiful birds safely. Yesterday I watched a red-tailed hawk eating something in the middle of our yard. By the time I got closer and thought to get out my camera, he decided to fly away, a poor squirrel in his clutches. It made me realize even more just how skilled you are to get all these amazing action photos.

    • Thank you, Rose. I have found many, many red-tailed hawks this year – 74 of them on the 7 hour drive to Pennsylvania. I also found many with squirrels for dinner. No previous year was either so numerous. You will get your hawk photo this year, so many of them.

  5. These are beautiful shots and you are so lucky to see so many birds.ours are still hiding away but lots of young black birds. Must have been a late brood.

  6. ginnietom says:

    excellent… πŸ˜‰

  7. The 4th shot is simply amazing. Wings look like paper. Exquisite. My boy loved the post. =) Do you have any shots of flower fields?


  8. Denise says:

    Beautiful bird and beautiful photography. But I feel very sorry for the pigeon.

  9. Interesting post and I love your photos. πŸ˜€

  10. aussiebirder says:

    What really stunningly wonderful pics Donna, I am just loving your Snowy Owls, they are gorgeous raptors, especially with the snow backdrop!

  11. I have to admit that I to have turned my attention to planning for spring and summer, a set of activities that has certainly affected my mood.

    • It is so early here to think of gardening, and I bet in Seattle too. Ironically, I have designed gardens in the middle of winter. They are usually very large properties where I have all the survey work done months before. The designs just wait for the weather to break for installation. The garden events I help plan must start early since they are a big production to produce. Many people are on the committee, so the jobs are well tended by experienced helpers.

  12. Pat says:

    Gorgeous creatures.

  13. Just FABULOUS pictures!!! I would so love to see these owls. As for the mice and voles, there is no shortage.

    • Funny on the mice and voles. I think not too many gardeners would cry over voles or moles being snatched. In the arctic, the owls line their nests with lemmings. It is a neat looking nest. Soft and warm too I bet.

  14. I have yet to see a Snowy Owl this year, though I’ve heard reports that they’re in the area. Something–an owl or a fox or a hawk–appears to be keeping the songbirds away this winter. I hear them and see them occasionally, but they’re not visiting my clean, refilled feeders much. Yes, I’m starting to think about spring. But the winter isn’t too terrible this year. πŸ˜‰

  15. Indie says:

    Such gorgeous birds! I know they’ve caught a lot of them at Logan Airport over in Boston. I haven’t spotted any near me, though. Trapping must be stressful for the pigeon, but at least they aren’t shooting birds anymore! Good luck with all the planning for summer! I know that must be quite a bit of work getting ready for a big walk or festival.

  16. Your post should have come with a disclaimer: “No pigeons were harmed in the process, ” ha,ha. I have always wanted to see one of these beautiful owls, how lucky you are. I am not reassured after what you said that the best place to see them is at airports!

    • I wish no pigeons were harmed, but I have my doubts that is true. They never answered the question if the pigeons die. The airports get rather fussy with people visiting the owls. The security extends outside too.

  17. What a beautiful bird. We don’t have these owls here and I just love their pictures against the snow. I am a bit anxious for spring and gardens too.

  18. Annette says:

    Only 9? You poor girl, Donna πŸ˜‰ No, I’m kidding, I’d be happy to see one but no luck. Our owls are only active at night and during the day they’re impossible to spot. I wish I could join you for a shooting but until then I have to be happy looking at your stunning pics. Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

    • So many of the photographers have seen more because they will be more diligent than me. I get too bored waiting and looking. Snowy owls are one of only a couple of owls that will hunt during the day. Most are “night owls”. I know how hard it is to see most owls in the forest. Even when I know the tree one is in, it takes me a while to find it.

      • Annette says:

        yes, that’s the problem – I can see them from the car when I come home late at night but that’s not much good to a photographer πŸ˜‰

  19. The Snowy Owls are so beautiful Donna and the first photograph is exceptional! I found the information to be very interesting as well. We don’t have these types of birds here so it it nice to see them virtually.

  20. Your photos are absolutely gorgeous! You are so lucky to be able to photograph them. I still haven’t seen any around our area, but there is still hope. I’m just thinking that even if I am able to spot one it will probably be too far away for me to photograph. Were these photos taken with your new camera?

  21. These beautiful birds are just so majestic. A beautiful site to see. I have not been fortunate yet, but my sis in law has, and she too agrees to their beauty.

  22. Oh Donna these are amazing shots and apparently they have been sighted across the street on our lake although I am unsure if they up here at our end or further east. Love to see these beauties.

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