05 January 2012

Snowy Owl Chronicles and Possible 1844 Irruption

Numerous records in the chronicles indicate the Snowy Owl occurrence in lower North America dates to circa 1685 and subsequently. A first notation was by John Clayton, and for the Virginia colonies.

In the mid-1740s, this winter owl was noted for the Kingsessing Meadows in Pennsylvania, as denoted by William Bartram. The first glimpse of an irruption was in the spring of 1835, when a Strix nyctea was observed at the Fulton Market, in New York City.

A couple of records indicate occurrence in 1844 and 1845.

"A Buffalo paper says a white owl was recently captured at Black Rock, which measured six feet three inches from tip to tip of its extended wings." — account January 30, 1844 in the New York Daily Tribune 3(252): 4 and repeated February 10, 1844 in the Sunbury American and Shamokin Journal.

A "wolf chase" in northern Maine in the winter of 1844 provides another, though unlikely, instance. In an account by C. Whitehead — issued a few years after the event — his descriptive narrative related skating up the Kennebec River in a sporting quest(January 18, 1851; Sunbury American 3(12): 1). Along one tributary he watched "a couple of white owls, that sat in their hooded state, with ruffled pantaletts [sic] and long ear tabs, debating in silent conclave the affairs of their frozen realm, and wondering if they, 'for all their feathers were cold'"... .

Its presence in a wooded habitat and noted to have "ear tabs" convey that these owls were some other species. This prose may have also been nothing more than poetic expression included to pique the readers interest.

A third report was from New England, conveyed a lively view of having an owl about, and representing perspectives of two sorts.

"A Capital Joke. — A good natured laugh has run around our village lately from a story that is too good to confine to such narrow borders. For several weeks past a large white owl has been seen from day to day flying in this vicinity. His 'Wisdom' has attracted many shots from marksmen which whether too small or too poorly aimed have been ineffectual. One day not long since he was seen perched upon a wall a few rods west of the village, and several 'good shots' among 'our first young men' started in pursuit. — Creeping warily behind walls and through bushes they would attain a desirable proximity and 'let fly.' The grave and reverend president of night was imperturbable however. Some fired two or three times but the great eyes still glared unmoved. The marksman would retire satisfied, and another would succeed. The result was the same. Some came back boldly laughing, and others slinking, with 'covered arms' — for the village was in a roar of laughter. A stuffed owl had been made to personate the live specimen that had been actually seen, and those eager to do execution had learned that it was not well to shoot white owls very early in April. — Barre Gazette."

The article was reprinted in the Burlington, Vermont newspaper (May 17, 1844; Burlington Free Press 17(50): 1).

In February, 1845 a short news article referred to a white owl about in January 1845 (February 1, 1845; Columbia Democrat 3(41): 2 as issued at Bloomsburg, Columbia County, Pennsylvania).

"White Owl. The Main[e] Farmer mentions that one of those rare birds, white owl, was shot a few days since at Vassalborough, ME. His owlship was near the house, looking into the poultry yard for a Christmas dinner, when he was taken. His body and legs were covered with an abundance of down and feathers for the cold weather, and were white as the snow which he beat. His legs and claws looked as if they belonged [to] the firm of 'Catchem & Holdem.' His wings when extended measured five feet two inches from their two extremes."

Although there is scant evidence, the occurrence of a couple of sightings in the same season, may indicate an irruption. There are certainly few records to develop a broad-based perspective. Nonetheless, the lore adds another unique aspect to the historic ornithology of the period.