There’s been an unusually high number of dead or dying owls reported to authorities this year, and while it’s upsetting, it’s nothing to panic over, according to experts in the field.
Louis Porter, commissioner of the Department of Fish & Wildlife, said Tuesday in a phone interview that he told the Fish & Wildlife Board at its April 3 meeting that the department has received an unusually high number of reports about owls being found dead.
Porter said two autumns ago there was a large crop of nuts in the woods, which led to an increase in small mammal populations. This led to an owl population increase, as owls prey on these creatures. This past winter, Porter said, was a hard one for owls, as the heavy, dense snow made it easier for the small mammals to hide.
He said this happens from time to time with different animal species. Last fall, he said, there was an unusually large number of squirrels reported killed on the roadways after an increase in available food led to the population rising.
Lauren Adams, development coordinator for Vermont Institute of Natural Science, agreed with Porter’s assessment, saying this isn’t the first time there’s been a spike in such incidents.
Adams was recently named development coordinator at VINS, but prior to that served as lead animal keeper. VINS runs a wild bird rehabilitation center.
She said by far the most common species of owl in Vermont, and hence the kind VINS normally sees, is the barred owl.
In 2018, VINS took in 45 barred owls. Between Jan. 1 and the end of March of this year, it’s already taken in approximately 50. The most VINS has seen for owl intakes was 71 in 2016, and Adams expects that number will be matched or beaten by the end of 2019.
She said VINS manages to rehabilitate about half of the owls it takes in, releasing them back into the wild near where they were found. The success rate sounds low, she said, but it’s on par with other animal rehabilitation centers.
In a normal year, most of the owls coming to VINS are found injured on roadsides, likely hurt by collisions with vehicles, said Adams. This year, many were found emaciated and sick from starvation in odd places such as backyards, parking lots and driveways. Most of the reports came between February and March. She said the owls were seeking open areas to hunt in.
If people come across a sick or injured owl, or other bird, they should first call VINS at 359-5000 during normal business hours, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. As of Saturday, the hours will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Adams said it’s open every day. Those who call should use the extension 212, but if it’s after hours, use 510, which will lead to a hotline with instructions.
Adams said it’s not advisable for people to approach an owl if they don’t know what they’re doing. Some birds, she said, don’t survive being transported to VINS, at 149 Natures Way in Quechee.
During spring, people sometimes confuse a fledgling bird with a sick or injured one, Adams said, and will take it to VINS when it should have been left alone in the wild. Calling first, she said, can avoid unnecessary bird transports.
Steve Parren, of the Fish & Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Diversity Program, said in an email Tuesday that it’s often the younger owls that die in circumstances such as these.
“The first year is the hardest because the birds are not experienced and food is harder to find,” he said.
“This winter we have snow cover since November, and the winter has lasted a long time. We don’t have an estimate of the owl population or how many died, but we have received more calls than usual about dead barred owls, owls at bird feeders — the small mammals that come to the seed are the main draw — lethargic birds, and owls out during the day, including on power lines along roads,” he said.
Adams said fluctuation within wildlife populations is common, but often unseen.
“It’s tough when you see it,” she said.