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An irruption! Of owls!
October 16, 2009 11:33 AM   Subscribe

"[Irruption] is the term birders use to describe an unusual mass movement of birds into an area. But even that big word fails to capture what happened last winter when thousands of owls descended on northern Minnesota."

The irruption of 2004-5 was big news, with its own symposium and many people reporting the Minnesota trees "dripping with owls" People trekked to the famous Sax Zim Bog to see and photograph some of the 1700+ great gray owls forced south by the mouse crash. People have been speculating that perhaps we are due for another this year.
posted by jessamyn (70 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
O RLY?
posted by dersins at 11:41 AM on October 16, 2009 [9 favorites]




Fact: this is a small owl.
posted by cortex at 11:47 AM on October 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


forced south by the mouse crash
posted by DU at 11:48 AM on October 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Obviously, we need to start hunting them in order to thin out the herds. It's the only way to save them.
posted by bondcliff at 11:48 AM on October 16, 2009


ok. funnest to say ever.

exclamation: SAX ZIM BOG OWL! SAX ZIM BOG OWL, MAN!

advertisement: SEE THE SAX ZIM BOG OWL JAM!

accompaniment: THE HOT SAX ZIM BOG OWL RAG.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:51 AM on October 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


The owls are not what they seem.
posted by brand-gnu at 11:54 AM on October 16, 2009 [7 favorites]


I'm going to drive to the outskirts of DUluth and play track 2 of Van Halen to give them the salute they deserve.
posted by COBRA! at 11:55 AM on October 16, 2009


"This isn't just a rare bird, this is the Brad Pitt of birds, one everyone wants to see," Stiteler said. "Then imagine 5,000 or more Brad Pitts in one area in one winter. Most of us are happy if we see one or two in a year.

I'll say! I saw only two Brad Pitts last year (rubbing their abs together to make a baby Brad Pitt), and I counted myself a lucky man.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:55 AM on October 16, 2009 [15 favorites]


The owls are not what they seem.

I just came here to say that, but you beat me to it.
posted by lexicakes at 11:58 AM on October 16, 2009


What an amazing story! I spend a large part of my childhood in that area and miss it so much. Now I want to go visit.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:59 AM on October 16, 2009


My birder friends dragged me to one of the great bird migration spots (Cape May, NJ) to see the hawks last week. It was great, an interesting look at a subculture I knew very little about. The parking lot at the lighthouse was filled with cars bearing out-of-state plates. Neat post.
posted by fixedgear at 12:03 PM on October 16, 2009


Owls are strange but awesome birds. Kind of like cuttlefish of the sky.
posted by JHarris at 12:09 PM on October 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


If there's another irruption of Great Greys I may consider going to Duluth. In winter.

Birding makes you do wacky things.

For instance, about three years ago there was an irruption of Snowy Owls (an Arctic species) as far south as San Francisco. The following year, we went on a bird trip to the Skagit River area north of Seattle, and took a day trip into southern BC, where there had also been a great number of Snowies reported in the irrpuption year. But the year we went? Not so much. We were walking out on some dikes in a freezing rain/snow shower, trying to keep binos and scopes dry, and I finally spotted an owl. It was probably a good half-mile off, looking exactly like the lumps of snow it was perched amongst (except it had eyes). It was an unsatisfying look.

When we crossed the border into Canada, the border guys were all "What's the purpose of your trip?" and someone in the van said "We're here to look at owls!" The border guy looked at the falling snow/rain, then at us, and said "You came all the way from San Francisco to look at birds?"

Yes, yes we did. And we'd do it again.

On preview: Cape May! Haven't been yet, but will go, some year. Also on the list is Veracruz, Mexico, where you can see a million hawks (no kidding) flying overhead during the fall migration.
posted by rtha at 12:15 PM on October 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Owl sightings are a treat for me... they are great, intelligent birds.

As a kid, my biology teacher sister had several owls that had been injured and brought to her.. from tiny Saw Whet to a majestic Great Horned Owl (that would sit on the arm of the couch and watch TV with me for hours)...... i miss those birds...!
posted by HuronBob at 12:18 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Damn, I missed the '04/'05 irruption despite being in Duluth, not sure if I should hope for another one or not this year: to see them yes, but ti seems awfully disruptive for the owls.

We are on a major migratory pathway for raptors though and each year if you are in the right spot there is no shortage of cool birds that could claw your eyes out, even had a Gyrfalcon this year which is really rare in this area.
posted by edgeways at 12:20 PM on October 16, 2009


I'm sorry, but -- "the mouse crash"? I HAVE to know what that means.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:20 PM on October 16, 2009


It's surprising that some many of those links don't have pictures.

Also, irruption isn't really that big of a word.
posted by cjorgensen at 12:20 PM on October 16, 2009


hey now... Duluth in the winter is *awesome*... i insist... AWESOME.

(yes, i live here and i'm whipping up my survival enthusiasm. keeps ya warm.)
posted by RedEmma at 12:21 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Neil Stephenson and Walt Disney Pictures present:

MOUSE CRASH

Coming Summer 2010
posted by Horace Rumpole at 12:29 PM on October 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


The owls are on their way from Gormenghast. Ha ha ha! The ravenous owls!
posted by steef at 12:33 PM on October 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Crash just seems to be the word that biologists use to descibe a rapid populaiton decline. So you can mix it with other words -- mouse crash, lemming crash, crab crash -- to make funny combinations. The big deal is that when you have one species pretty much dependent on another for food, the crash of one population really affects the other. So these owls moved south instead of just staying in Canada and dying, but it's still a pretty majur disruption.

This whole post idea is courtesy of a couchsurfing biologist who has been staying with me and regaled me with stories of owl irruptions and mouse crashes which is what prompted me to go looking up more information about this event.
posted by jessamyn at 12:35 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fascinating post, and such vivid and fun to say terminology! Thanks, jessamyn.
posted by lazaruslong at 12:42 PM on October 16, 2009


The owls are not what they seem.

I just came here to say that, but you beat me to it.


I just came here to say *that* but you beat me to it!
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:43 PM on October 16, 2009


I just discovered that there's an irruption of dollar owls every day....
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 12:51 PM on October 16, 2009


I'm friendly with Birdchick from the Birdchick blog, and, man, is she into birds. In fact, she did a play about the subject that I reviewed oncet. She's also responsible for the Disapproving Rabbits blog.

Also, a few years ago I posted an FPP about a home invasion that was thwarted by samurai sword. That was in her apartment building, and the blogger whose photos I linked to (no longer online, alas) is her husband. Both are friends with Ari Hoptman.

This has nothing to do with owls. I just wanted to make a point about how small a town Minneapolis is sometimes.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:54 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


This tree is not exactly dripping with owls. More owls!
posted by electroboy at 12:54 PM on October 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


"What's the purpose of your trip?" and someone in the van said "We're here to look at owls!" The border guy looked at the falling snow/rain, then at us, and said "You came all the way from San Francisco to look at birds?"

Next time just say "Tooks and smokes!" and he'll wave you on without blinking.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:55 PM on October 16, 2009


I have a sudden hunger for owls.

* disclaimer - does not actually eat owls. *
posted by malocchio at 12:58 PM on October 16, 2009


Any New Englanders into owls would do well to visit the Vermont Raptor Center, where you can see these and other fine birds that have been rehabilitated after being injured. Cool stuff.

Last year at an Audubon preserve near me there was a family of great horned owls who took up residence in a Great Blue Heron's nest. It was quite the draw for birders.

We went to the same place for an Owl Prowl last winter but never heard anything. A few days later my wife, who can imitate pretty much any bird, heard one outside our house and had a "conversation" with him for about a half hour.

I guess I have no point to this comment other than to say that owls rule.
posted by bondcliff at 12:59 PM on October 16, 2009




"[Irruption] is the term birders use to describe an unusual mass movement of birds into an area."

I thought it was an awesome Eddie Van Halen solo.
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 1:08 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Everyone is fond of owls.
posted by The Whelk at 1:08 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've still never seen an owl, only heard their merry notes. I'm kind of scared to witness one, to be honest. A friend sent me a photo she took of a barn owl, and the black abysses that were its eyes have me convinced that such animals are nothing less than harvesters of souls.
posted by invitapriore at 1:08 PM on October 16, 2009


Any New Englanders into owls would do well to visit the Vermont Raptor Center

And then stop by my place for snacks because it's just a few towns over from here. Promise no mouse bones.
posted by jessamyn at 1:13 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Halifax, fall, 1995. I witnessed the most amazing murder ever. It was just a big black cloud of crows, at the very least 5km long, and LOUD.

I'm not the least bit bird-averse, but I can't even imagine how terrifying it would have been if they'd landed.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:25 PM on October 16, 2009


I read this as "the term birthers use" and thought, "oh good, they finally found a less obnoxious hobby."
posted by Rangeboy at 1:25 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


This sounds like a hoot!

Can't believe I was the first to say that.
posted by chairface at 1:30 PM on October 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


clearly the next Harry Potter has just turned 11 and this is just attempts to get his invite to Hogwarts through.
posted by The otter lady at 1:35 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


my favorite owl photo doesn't have an owl in it.
posted by anastasiav at 1:39 PM on October 16, 2009 [27 favorites]


my favorite owl photo doesn't have an owl in it.

When the last scene of my life shot before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the snow.
There was only one set of footprints, and some weird wing-like patterns.
I realized that this was right before the end of my life.
This always bothered me and I questioned the Great Owl about my dilemma.

"That's where I ate you, and after the pleasure of the feast, I flopped back into the snow and waved my wings about. In short, you were delicious."
posted by filthy light thief at 2:23 PM on October 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


"I'm sorry, but -- "the mouse crash"? I HAVE to know what that means."

Counsel for Mr. Mouse has refused comment for reasons of national security, Doctor Frankenstoat's objections notwithstanding.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:31 PM on October 16, 2009


In short, you were delicious.

And so cold. Forgive me.
posted by dersins at 2:32 PM on October 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


The mouse crash was caused by rampant speculation on the Toronto Mouse Exchange. Unscrupulous people were packaging various speculative mouse products into CDOs (Cat Dinner Options) and getting their compatriots in crime to promote those CDOs as a triple-A rated product.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:57 PM on October 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


About that time 5 years ago I surfed upon an album of amazing photographs of a parliament of Great Greys from an irruption near Kanata, Ontario. I didn't bookmark (I was on a friend's computer).

I have been searching online for those photos ever since.
posted by ovvl at 3:02 PM on October 16, 2009


There is something about the roundness of body and thickness of feathers that makes me want to hug owls whenever I see them; just gather them up into a big sweeping squeeeeeze while squealing "Wheee! Owl Hugging!".

Two things on this subject: one: owls are really hard to catch. Like much, much harder than you would think. And two, if you do manage to catch and hug one, it will not like it.

On a completely and totally unrelated note, owls have remarkably sharp beaks and talons. Those things are like razors. They also can make this amazingly loud shriek when they are surprised and offended.
posted by quin at 3:08 PM on October 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


> I'm friendly with Birdchick from the Birdchick blog, and, man, is she into birds.

So jealous! I love Birdchick. Also, owls and irruptions and raptors in general.
posted by gingerbeer at 3:09 PM on October 16, 2009


"I'm sorry, but -- "the mouse crash"? I HAVE to know what that means."

I'm pretty certain that this ties into the life cycle of mice and other fast breeding rodents, where, in times of plenty, a single pair of mating mice can exponentially expand the population in an area. Predators move in to feed on this huge surplus of animals, until the conditions change enough to prevent the mice from continuing to maintain such high numbers. At this point you have an excess of predatory animals who are forced to migrate due to the "population crash" or risk starving.

If my memory serves, this has become a more common problem since the overall reduction of predatory animal number in the last hundred or so years.

But sometimes I just make shit up, so take this all with a grain of salt.
posted by quin at 3:17 PM on October 16, 2009


WE'RE OWL EXTERMINATORS!
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:32 PM on October 16, 2009


I would hug an owl
posted by jessamyn at 4:05 PM on October 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Apart from the birdwatching aspect of it, the irruption had another cool effect in northern Minnesota. This summer I went camping at Jaye Cooke and there were owl pellets everywhere. Digging through another animal's shit has never been so much fun.
posted by Demogorgon at 4:05 PM on October 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


During the winter more than 1,000 owls were found dead, most of them great grays ... more than 70 percent had been struck by a vehicle

So about 1 in 10 owls that came to Minnesota got crushed by a car.

This is why I have no patience for NIMBYs that put on birder hats to protest wind turbines.
posted by anthill at 4:17 PM on October 16, 2009


"Halifax, fall, 1995. I witnessed the most amazing murder ever. It was just a big black cloud of crows, at the very least 5km long, and LOUD.

I'm not the least bit bird-averse, but I can't even imagine how terrifying it would have been if they'd landed."

Near Mount St. Vincent?
posted by SpannerX at 4:28 PM on October 16, 2009


All this reminds me why I am alone tonight. My wife is in Bolivia. Watching birds. Got a text this morning saying she landed safely and her first bird was the Greater Rhea, right outside the airport.
posted by localroger at 4:32 PM on October 16, 2009


The next annual International Festival of Owls will be on 5-7 March 2010, in Houston, Minnesota USA.
posted by ovvl at 5:19 PM on October 16, 2009


The NEXT big owl event.
posted by HuronBob at 5:39 PM on October 16, 2009


I have seen an owl's claws. Snowy owl that I suppose was trying to catch a rodent, as described in the article, though at the time it seems like it was trying to pick up the Civic.

Anyhoo, the talons on that thing were inches long, and the entire claw was nearly as big as my hand. Wingspan was nearly as wide as mine, too. Huge beak. And I have no reason to believe this wasn't a perfectly normal-sized owl. I'm sure there are much, much larger species out there.

Suffice to say, you won't find me hugging an owl. I've heard that evisceration is fairly unpleasant.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:47 PM on October 16, 2009


This is why I have no patience for NIMBYs that put on birder hats to protest wind turbines.

what

It doesn't have to be, and isn't, either/or. Local conservation and wildlife groups have been working with the wind farm people at the Altamont Pass, and some of the older turbines (which are designed in a way that makes them particularly dangerous to birds of prey) have been replaced with a newer model that in addition to killing many fewer birds, is more efficient. Win.
posted by rtha at 6:22 PM on October 16, 2009


Seeing an owl changed my life, or at least my perception of it. It remains the only owl I've ever seen outside of captivity. Nice fall, day, didn't want to go back to my dorm, lingered as long as I could, called everyone, no one around, then I run into an aquaintance. We talk for a while, and finally, I give up and head back to my dorm. I take the long path, by the Slough (what we called the body of water that used to be river like, then was blocked to build more of the campus). As I'm walking up the hill, I turn, just at the right moment to see an owl swoop down from one branch to another. I stood there, just watching it, for about five minutes. That's when I realized, had I done a single thing differently that day, say, getting a lunch in the cafeteria versus grabbing a sandwich, or waking up even ten minutes later/earlier, I wouldn't have seen the owl.

I spent a couple days paranoid about the absurd importance of every single choice I make. Of course, had I not seen the owl, I wouldn't be writing this.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:33 PM on October 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Sorry for the off-topic derail, all. rtha, I'm all for birders working with car drivers, window manufacturers, pet owners, and wind turbine developers to reduce bird fatalities. Preserving habitat is even more important.

However, the "wind turbines kill birds therefore they should not be built in my backyard" meme is pernicious and widespread. I believe it is misguided. A Danish study concluded that cars, cats, and windows together killed 3700 times more birds than wind turbines.

I'll stop derailing. Seriously though... an owl irrupting to Minnesota had a 1 in 10 chance of being smeared over a highway. That's really sad.
posted by anthill at 8:04 PM on October 16, 2009


I may consider going to Duluth. In winter.

Actually we went up to the North Shore around Christmas last year (to take the tyke on the "Polar Express" christmas train excursion), stayed in a cabin about 40 feet from godawful treacherous ice-sheeted granite shoreline, and it was beautiful up there. If you've got a decent streak of stoicism Northern Minnesota in the winter is a fine destination.
posted by nanojath at 10:54 PM on October 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I hear you, anthill. There's a lot of stupid on both sides. About 50% of redtails in California don't make past their first year of life - most are killed by cars (the remainder are shot, starve, or predated). And there's a stretch of freeway near my house that runs between a landfill and the San Francisco Bay; landfills/dumps are hugely popular with gulls, and there are smooshed gull parts on the freeway there pretty much daily.

I have two favorite owl sightings. One took place on the trail up to Hawk Hill, in the Marin Headlands. It was hawk migration season, and that weekend it was also the Fleet Week airshow, and the Hill was jammed with hundreds of people there to see the planes. And there was a spotted owl perched on a branch about 10 feet from the trail that these hundreds of people were going up and down all day. All the folks there specifically for counting migrating hawks were whispering and creeping around and trying not to scare the owl, and everyone else (did I mention there were hundreds of them?) passed by cluelessly and loudly. The owl was entirely unimpressed and not at all frightened.

Second favorite owl sighting: the briefest glimpse, at dusk, of a Great Gray Owl gliding from tree to meadow, in Yosemite. Breathtaking.
posted by rtha at 11:45 PM on October 16, 2009


jessamyn : And then stop by my place for snacks because it's just a few towns over from here. Promise no mouse bones.

It's tragic how the mouse crash has affected us all. Valuable information science professionals are having to forgo protein-and-calcium-rich mouse bones in their snacks. Won't somebody please think of the librarians?
posted by Afroblanco at 12:02 AM on October 17, 2009


Persons nearby the owls should pop out and collect pellets. Teachers love that shit, it'll sell.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:30 AM on October 17, 2009


Nice post. Owls can be creepy.
posted by various at 2:15 AM on October 17, 2009


Ideas mulled at a midsummer owl roundtable
Adding the word "owl" makes a lot of phrases 5x better.
posted by ChuqD at 7:10 AM on October 17, 2009


Owls
posted by humannaire at 10:22 AM on October 17, 2009


In The Providence of A Sparrow, there is an anecdote about watching twenty to forty thousand migratory Vaux swifts flying to roost in a chimney of an elementary school. It began in 1994 and now is an annual event for Portlanders--on the evenings when the swifts are roosting in the chimney, people come by the hundreds to sit and wait to watch the swifts appear, build to a cloud of thousands and then wheel around and about above the chimney and then, in a torrent, spiral down into the chimney for the night.

And here, from the community weblog of the Retired Associates of Portland State University', is a post entitled Swifts Leave Chapman School Chimney in October.

Here is Portland Audobon Society's Swift Watch site.

And here are videos.
posted by y2karl at 2:23 PM on October 17, 2009


a) I found a dead owl on my porch last winter. Just a baby, about the same size as the one in Cortex's link. At first I thought my cat had killed it but later I mentioned it to a lady I know who is a birder. She said that they can sometimes freeze to death and just drop out of the sky. Poor little owls.

b) When I was a kid, in Hong Kong, one of my Dad's friends came by to visit one night and brought presents with him for me and my sisters (very chinese thing to do this, bring gifts to the children of your friends). We were thrilled when he gave us each a baby owl its own bamboo cage. We had to let them go a few months later because they were getting too big, so we took them up to the roof and opened the cages, and they all took off, but my owl kept circling our building for days after, and would sometimes land right on our window at night and look in, as if he was checking in on us.
posted by vronsky at 10:47 PM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


owl found
posted by vronsky at 10:07 PM on November 1, 2009


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