The largest irruption of northern owls ever documented is occurring in Minnesota this winter. Many people have noticed the unusual numbers of great gray owls, northern hawk owls, and boreal owls.
The owls are moving south to find food because of a collapse of small mammal populations over a large swath of Canada and northern Minnesota. This happens periodically, but this year it occurred much earlier. Owls began moving south in September and October, rather than in November or December as in past irruptions.
Many of the owls stopped along the North Shore of Lake Superior and other productive hunting areas such as wetlands across northern Minnesota. People are seeing owls in new and unusual places. The recent ice storm followed by several inches of snow over much of northern Minnesota has further limited food sources for owls. There have been reports of increased sightings in Carlton, Aitkin, and Pine counties.
This winter's irruption of owls has also brought large numbers of bird enthusiasts from throughout the United States and other countries.
Because more bird watchers are out in rural areas, there have been increased car/owl collisions and complaints of owl watchers stopping in unsafe areas to observe owls.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) urges owl watchers to use caution when driving through areas where owls are hunting. Owls will swoop down to capture prey. Owls are not used to cars.
When watching owls, the DNR urges people to look for safe places to stop their cars especially because of icy road conditions in many areas.
"The birds are stressed and having a difficult time finding food," said Pam Perry, DNR nongame wildlife specialist. "Watch from a distance. Don't get out of the car, and please don't flush the birds."
She said, in addition to injuries/death of owls from car collisions, unfortunately some are likely to succumb to the lack of food and the bitter cold.
If a dead owl is found, the DNR asks people to make note of where and when the owl was found, then call the local DNR nongame wildlife, wildlife or regional office. The DNR would like a name and contact number of the person who found the owl.