Living with snowy owls



The Skyview subdivision south of Polson offers views of Flathead Lake and the Mission Mountains. That's why people live there. To the south, the half-acre lots give way to miles of undeveloped grass land, which makes for prime vole habitat. That's why, in 2012, 15 snowy owls spent the winter at Skyview. It's why, to the chagrin of some human residents, they're back this year.

"[The birdwatchers] drive across people's property, walk through your yard," says George Hess, who lives on the western side of Skyview where the owls are most prevalent. "It's bothersome having strangers walking around the neighborhood with binoculars ... And they all drive slow."

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Bill Becker and his fiancée moved into the neighborhood last July. "We didn't even know about the owls ... Then I saw a photo of a snowy owl on the internet," he says. "It was sitting on my roof." Becker adds that his fiancée is uncomfortable with the idea of people "standing in our yard to take a picture of an owl on our roof."

Several residents say they are scared to let their cats outside.

Snowy owls aren't typical this far from the Arctic Circle. When they do show up, ecologists call it an irruption. During last year's irruption, the Polson Chamber of Commerce saw a 34 percent spike in January "walk-ins and phone calls." In February, it was 74 percent.

"The birds captivate people," says Denver Holt, director of The Owl Research Institute, "but people need to be considerate of the residents."

Holt adds that while it's possible for a snowy to kill a house cat, it's not probable. During an irruption in 2006 he sampled 1,313 owl pellets (owl puke) and recovered over 5,000 vole skulls. "Over 90 percent of their diet is rodents," he says.

Russ Mann's house is a favorite perch for the owls. Last year, he came home from work to find a birdwatcher's car blocking his driveway. He admits that living at a tourist attraction can be inconvenient, but says "it's worth it."

"Yeah, there's a lot of owl crap on my roof," he says. "But they picked my roof. That's totally cool."

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