RISINGSUN, Ohio — Jon Aurand had no intention of picking up a hitchhiker on his way to work. It was early that recent morning and tough to see much beyond the roadway as he cruised down State Rt. 281 toward the North Baltimore rail yard.
Aurand heard a thump, but didn’t think much of it because his diesel truck is inherently a noise machine all on its own. When he reached the next stop sign, Aurand got out to take a look and saw a white ball of feathers partially exposed in the grill of the pickup.
Those soulful eyes staring back at him belonged to a snowy owl, an ambassador of the far north rarely seen in this part of the country.
“It never crossed my mind that I’d hit an owl,” Aurand said. “It was really dark, but it seemed like he came right up out of the middle of the road.”
The talons and sharp beak of the owl made it impossible for Aurand to attempt to handle the bird, so he called a friend for advice and proceeded to work. When he reached the rail yard, the owl had tucked itself deeper into the grill and wrapped those talons around the metal bars.
Aurand called the county game officer for help but failed to reach him. He then phoned the sheriff’s office for some direction on how to handle the situation, but was referred to an area raptor rescue organization. While Aurand attended an early meeting, a co-worker managed to carefully remove the owl from the grill, then set it on the seat of the truck.
The bird was not bleeding and did not appear to have any broken bones, but acted like it was in shock and did not attempt to fly off. Aurand closed the door and went back to work, hoping to soon hear from the rescue group. But after an hour, he got a call over the radio that there was a large bird flying around inside his truck.
“When I went back out to the truck, he just sat there and stared at me,” Aurand said. “After he started flying around again, a little later on, I opened the driver’s door and he flew out. The owl had a wingspan as wide as my truck, and he flew away perfectly. I’ve been around animals a lot, and he looked good to go. It was like there was nothing wrong with him at all.”
The following night, one of Aurand’s co-workers saw the owl perched on top of a power pole at dusk, apparently in hunting mode. “I did some research on them, and they like to hunt in open fields, so maybe he’ll hang around here for a while,” Aurand said.
According to local birding expert Kenn Kaufman, that just might be the case. Although snowy owls are not common in these parts, Kaufman said that if “they find prey, they will stay.”
Kaufman added that the abundance of snowy owl sightings this winter in this part of the country is truly an anomaly.
“For eastern North America and this part of the Great Lakes, this has been the biggest snowy owl invasion since the 1940s,” Kaufman said. “This is very unusual, and the number of snowy owls that have been seen in Ohio and the northeast is one for the record books.”
Snowy owls will nest throughout the Arctic, in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia. The worldwide population is estimated at around 300,000, but their numbers can vary as their primary food supply — lemmings — goes through wild population swings. Kaufman — the author of numerous books on birds, wildlife, and nature — theorized that the influx of snowy owls we are experiencing is the result of another aspect of that lemming-owl relationship.
An abundance of lemmings in northern Quebec this past year allowed the snowy owls to produce a bumper crop of young. In very lean food-supply years, snowy owls will produce few or even no eggs, but in years rich with lemmings, a nest might produce seven, 10, or more young.
“It looks like there was a high population of lemmings all over northern Quebec, so we likely experienced a large increase in the number of snowy owls that were hatched,” he said. “Many of those young birds dispersed in the fall, and a majority of them flew south. Most of the snowy owls we are seeing probably hatched in June and then left northern Canada in November.”
Kaufman, who has written extensively about snowy owls for Audubon’s blog site, said snowy owls are fairly adaptable, preferring to feed on rodents but capable of taking prey as large as ducks.
“If they find decent hunting, they’ll stick around for the winter and then head for the Arctic in late March,” Kaufman said. “Some have just been passing through, but others seem to have found this area to their liking, especially the lakeshore, since it has open spaces and large concentrations of shorebirds and gulls.”
Kaufman said along with the increased snowy owl sightings in our area, there have also been confirmed snowy owls in North Carolina this season for the first time in many years.
Several snowy owls have also been sighted on the island group of Bermuda, which sits some 600 miles off the coast of the southeastern United States.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.