Far from home

Snowy owl in QA facing urban threats

Far from home

Far from home

A snowy owl has become something of a local celebrity in upper Queen Anne, after moving into the neighborhood from cooler northern climes in November.

Among the owl watchers, some with tripods and telephoto lenses, flocking to the side streets of Queen Anne Avenue North, are two conservationists, whose interest in the bird stems from concern.

Tanea Stephens, Washington State coordinator for Raptors Are The Solution and Queen Anne resident, and Kersti Muul, a conservation specialist, community naturalist and member of the Seattle Audubon Conservation Committee from West Seattle, have been regularly checking up on the snowy owl since it has made Queen Anne its temporary home this fall.

“The environment makes it sometimes risky for her — the urban environment, as opposed to her natural environment,” Stephens said.

Muul said the owl was briefly spotted in Burien and West Seattle in mid-October but moved on to Queen Anne in November, where it has stayed since. It is either a female or a juvenile male, based on the brown flecks in its feathers, and came south from its native Artic region of North America, either because prey was scarce or there were too many snowy owls competing for food in the area.

Since landing in Queen Anne, the snowy owl has settled into a regular routine of napping and ignoring its adoring fans and the crows and other birds intent on driving off the larger predator from its tree branch or rooftop. At around 4:30 or 5 p.m., it leaves to hunt rats and rabbits.

While Muul hasn’t been able to track the bird’s hunting grounds, she said the owl would likely choose an environment with wide-open spaces, so it can see the prey below.

What worries Stephens and Muul is the prey the snowy owl is consuming.

Through their organizations, Stephens and Muul are partnering on an anticoagulant rodenticide campaign to educate people about the dangers of poison bait boxes set out to kill rats, as well as track where bait boxes are set out throughout the city.

When Stephens learned about the snowy owl in her neighborhood, she conducted a preliminary survey looking for anticoagulant rodenticide bait boxes. Just in a two-block stretch of the eastside of Queen Anne Avenue North, Stephens found 30 bait boxes, including one next to a home where the owl had been perched. She and volunteers found 40 on the westside of Queen Anne Avenue North.

The problems with bait boxes are widespread, however. In her preliminary documentation of other neighborhoods in Seattle, Stephens visited Madison Park’s commercial area on Dec. 29 and found 45 rodenticide bait boxes placed by commercial bait box companies along Madison Avenue, from 43rd Avenue East to McGilvra, an approximately .2-mile stretch.

Stephens said snowy owls eat two small rodents a day, and she and Muul are concerned, while in Queen Anne or out hunting at night, the bird will inadvertently consume a poisoned rat, which take up to 10 days to die after eating the bait. A slowly dying rat might be considered an easy meal by the owl, regardless of where it is spotted.

As part of her work for Seattle Audubon, Muul is monitoring the bird for signs of anticoagulant rodenticide poisoning: lethargy, drinking lots of water, blood coming from its beak and mouth.

While bait boxes, set out by commercial pesticide companies, may seem like an easy solution, Stephens said people are often unaware of what is inside or that the poison can kill non-target wildlife, like the snowy owl and other raptors, as well as dogs, cats, songbirds that accidentally wander into a bait box and other animals. The poison is also harmful to humans, as well.

“The crazy thing is these rodenticides are showing up all throughout the food web,” Stephens said.

Part of what Stephens and Muul are trying to accomplish is educating people who are out looking at the snowy owl about the dangers of using rodenticides, when there are other solutions.

Even if the snowy owl doesn’t visit Madison Park, Stephens said in an email, the presence of so many bait boxes in such a small area should be of concern to residents.

“With all the tall trees lining the lakeside and Madison Park, there must be raptors that live and hunt in the area,” Stephens said in an email.

Muul said this is an environmental problem created by humans, and it is largely unnecessary. Both Stephens and Muul agree the best way for people to prevent rats from entering residences and businesses is by sealing off entries and keeping trash in containers.

“Sanitation is the biggest solution, I think,” Muul said.

Stephens and Muul hope the interest in the snowy owl and other raptors in Seattle will generate awareness among residents about rodenticides.

Stephens said, on one hand, she understands people want some happy distraction, which the bird provides, but on the other hand, they need to be aware of the dangers the owl faces while snowbirding in warmer climes. She said she has left brochures informing people of the dangers bait boxes present near where the snowy owl has been seen, while Muul has been more direct, talking to people.

“People are just ignorant, and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” Muul said. “They just do not know. Education is the No. 1 solution.”

To learn more about Raptors are the Solution and safe alternatives to rodenticides, go to www.raptorsarethesolution.org.