Wildlife Specialist Shelley Spanswick (right) and Kim Andre examine a barred owl under anesthesia at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, May 11, 2018. The owl had been in the center's care for some time, recovering after being hit by a car. Credit: Troy R. Bennett

Skiers and snowboarders are loving the deep snow this winter. So are snowmobilers. But in the natural world, there’s at least one critter that’s had enough of the deep snowpack, a state wildlife biologist said.

Across the state, barred owls — smallish birds that weigh just over 1 pound — are going through a rough patch as they struggle to find prey that isn’t covered by snow, said Erynn Call, raptor specialist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

“It’s a natural phenomena that occurs this time of year, toward the end of the winter, when that snow is deep and hard-packed,” Call said. “Certain owl species that rely more on small mammals like [those] the size of mice or voles really have more of a challenging time when there is deep or hard-packed snow because they’re not able to access those small rodents as easily. Those rodents are under the snow. They’re not on top of that snow.”

Great horned owls, which can weigh more than 3 pounds, typically eat bigger prey, including hares and squirrels, which are still readily available on top of the snow. But the animals that interest barred owls are safely ensconced beneath the snow, which can make the hungry owls increasingly desperate for food they can’t get to.

Making the barred owls’ struggle more apparent this year: There are simply more owls on the landscape this year than usual.

A massive squirrel population explosion in 2018 left motorists dodging the long-tailed speed bumps all around the state. The abundance of other kinds of natural prey has led to an increase in owls, too.

“When we have had, recently, booms in mast crop, which happen every five to six years, in acorns and pine cones, you have a huge surge in small rodents,” Call said. “And then, because of that, you have a surge in the number of owls that rely on that prey, like barred owls.”

Some owls have starved to death, while others simply find other ways to find food. Looking for prey in clear spots near roads is just one method fraught with peril.

Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick is among the rehabilitators that have seen an uptick in barred owls needing attention.

The organization posted a list on its Facebook page aimed at helping the owls as winter stretches on. Among Center for Wildlife’s suggestions:

— Use snap traps if you need to evict rodents from your home. Believe it or not they are the most humane and safest way for everyone involved.

— Seal up your house where said rodents are getting in, otherwise it becomes a cycle.

— Do not try to feed the owls with raw chicken, feeder mice or anything else. This will draw other animals to the area and can do more harm than good. If you want to sprinkle birdseed on top of the snow to get rodents to eat there, that is a better option.

Another of Center for Wildlife’s suggestions makes great sense to avoid unwittingly putting owls at risk.

“You don’t want to throw any food items out your window on the road because that attracts rodents to the roadside and then that in turn attracts owls,” Call said. “It’s extremely dangerous for them to be hunting along the roadsides because they do get hit quite often.”

Even apple cores and banana peels can draw rodents that might attract owls, and tossing any food item out the window ought to be avoided.

Call said anyone encountering an owl that seems to need help should contact the nearest wildlife rehabilitator to them. Among those are Avian Haven in Freedom (382-6761) and Center for Wildlife (361-1400).

And Call said Mother Nature will again begin to provide some respite for owls in the near future. Temperatures in the Bangor area this week will be above freezing each day, and the snowpack will finally begin to melt.

“I think with the warm weather we’re going to turn a corner for the owls once the snow starts to melt,” she said.

John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...