It’s the peak of snowy owl season in Saskatchewan, as the majestic birds migrate down from their arctic tundra home.
Stewardship Coordinator for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, Sarah Bradley, said they visit the province from November to April.
“To them, this is a pretty mild climate that they are well adapted to,” she explained. “When things start to warm up, they’ll head back to their northern Arctic breeding grounds—very high-altitude habitats.”
This species of bird can be found in multiple places across the globe and breeds in remote areas, making it difficult to assess their population status.
“It takes multiple countries and many different resource-intensive study projects to try to understand how many there actually are” she explained. “In Saskatchewan, they’re not listed as a species of conservation concern, and in Canada, they are also not listed as endangered by our federal government.”
The owls are, however, a high priority for reassessment by the committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Snowy owls made it on the Red List in 2017 after their population was estimated to have declined by 30 per cent to 50 per cent in just three generations—a drastic drop in a short time frame.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the species as vulnerable, which is just one step above endangered.
“To further complicate population assessments, is the fact that snowy owls are also what’s called an irruptive species,” Bradley added. “Every three to five years there will be a mass number of owls, and this is in response to really good lemming numbers in the north. So, they do cycle naturally in their numbers; it’s really hard to say how they’re doing in particular in Saskatchewan."
While they may not necessarily be endangered, it’s important to protect snowy owl habitats to prevent them from earning that title.
Bradley shared some tips on what folks can do to help out:
Citizen science: Anyone can participate in these initiatives to help collect data on birds that winter in Saskatchewan. Bradley recommends the Christmas Bird Count by Audubon.
Limiting use of rodenticide: Poison can be effective for controlling rodents, but what’s in their system will travel up the food chain and poison the birds.
Give owls space/practice ethical wildlife viewing: While it can be magical to see snowy owls face-to-face, they are extremely sensitive to stimuli. Approaching too quickly or loudly can not only disrupt their hunting, but can exhaust them, and/or cause them to flee.