09 January 2012

Snowy Owl Reportage - 1875-1885

Newspaper accounts during 1875-1885 report visits by the Snowy Owl, from the Arctic north. There are many indications of local instances of some of its presence.

The irruption in the winter of 1876-1877 was well reported.

It was a "mild and open season," for the winter, according to a weather almanac report from Montreal written by Henry G. Vennor. Snowy owls had wandered as far south as Washington, D.C. There was also a southward migration of the Great Gray Owl and Bohemian Waxwings.

Another report of the white owl was December 1876, for the Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania area. The local paper said: "... to judge from the number which have been shot in neighboring counties, we should fancy that they are about as numerous as sparrows. Half of our exchanges contain reports of the shooting of these owls."

In Montreal in January, 1877: "People happening to pass through the Place d'Armes, in front of the French Cathedral have witnessed a sight rarely seen in this or indeed any other city; viz.: Two, three or even more individuals of the Snowy or White Arctic owl species, perched upon the eaves of the bank buildings or flying from place to place on the opposite sides of the square."

The report continued, indicating these owls were being reported not only in Canada, but southward through the northern and middle United States. Many were being sold in local markets, according to the Montreal Witness.

Specimens were also taken at Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., according to another report. In Philadelphia, forty were sent to taxidermist John Krider.

The extent of the owl's occurrence is concise in this statement from an observer on the east coast: "I have heard of some five hundred specimens that have been seen, the majority which have been shot."

Worth considering were large numbers of these owls first appeared at New England about the first of November, 1877, according to a journalistic report. Dozens of owls got shot and "sent to the markets and to taxidermists." Fifteen were seen on a small island off the coast of Rockport, Massachusetts. In Maine, they appeared in September, with more than 150 shot in the vicinity of Portland.

Towards the end of the winter, an extent of the irruption is given in these few words: "A taxidermist during the past winter stuffed 176 snow owls, shot on the Long Island coast."

Another southward movement was in the early 1880s.

A bird taken late November 1880 was shot while perched on a telephone pole at North Hinsdale, Pennsylvania. The lifeless carcass got stuffed, attached to a perch — a seemingly inevitable fate — in multitude during these years.

One well-done specimen was a prominent display in the window of an establishment at Brattleboro, Vermont. It was from north of Townshend, taken in the autumn of 1881, the carcass had gone through the regular process of becoming a mount, set in a window for show purposes. The dead animal's wing-span was 7½ feet.

The "handsomest members of the owl family" were being seen in large numbers in eastern New York state, according to news of early 1882: "It is the first winter in which they have been abundant in four years. They are in good demand for ornaments and ornithological collections, when stuffed."

One bird from the north was displayed in Waco, Texas, its story indicating: "In spite of its strange situation this bird peculiar to tropical regions, seemed much at home, and stared steadfastly and unblushingly with its single eye, into the faces of curious visitors."

An owl taken near the Scranton reservoir was being stuffed in the autumn of 1882 by a taxidermist at Lehigh University. Harfang was an alternate common name for the large white owl of the winter.

New York City in January, 1883 had a lively market. One business-district taxidermist said nine of his ten customers wanted to buy an owl, the New York Sun story said. Most of his stock was recently sold, with only a few screech owls left for a willing buyer with cash.

Two of the white owls were shot in Jersey City, with one each taken at Riker's Hospital and Bellevue Hospital, within the metropolis.

A stuffed snowy owl cost $25, with less "superb specimens" for "as low as $15, $12, and even $10." A great horned owl specimen could be bought for $10, or a barred owl for $6. The small-size screech owl was being sold for $2.50.

Another taxidermist in the big city was selling an owl a day.

The reason?

"Capt. William Fowler says the great increase of the owls popularity is due to the vast social, moral, and generally artistic and aesthetic influence of the 'Owl Club," which is wont to gather in 'the hollow tree roost: at the Knickerbocker Cottage at midnight, there — in the language of the call for their recent dinner — 'too eate, too drynke, too be merrie, to hoote ande too screeche l' ye barne.'" — New York Sun reporter depiction"

The original story headlines were "Minerva's Bird in Fashion. All Sorts of Stuffed Owls in Lively Demand at Extraordinary Prices." This report went national, published February in the Los Angeles Herald and the Washington D.C. Bee in March.

Newspaper Accounts

Snowy owls mentions from prior to 1885 are especially expressive records for birds among the historic chronicles. The "rags" are one of five primary sources. Two great values of any newspaper are the timely and wide-spread venue, as issued in nearly every major town and city. It would have been a short walk from the post-office to the paper's office to spread the observations for a community story, soon printed. Prior to 1875 there were sporting journals with huntists tales, but nothing yet for an ornithological society. Bird journals were ready to fledge because of birdly endeavors in the eastern United States.

An editor — with so many across states and western frontier — had a focused interest, most ready for something to include on their daily or weekly pages. The page content is a wealth of details, with many an essential aspect of research in historic ornithology. Research derived from the millions of pages online has dramatically furthered known bird history.

Words from the past, mostly during the drab winter weeks, made white owls the news then. And the Snowy Owl is still news, once again.