Points North: The Economics of Owl Watching

Boreal Owl (Eric Ripma/Flickr)
Boreal Owl (Eric Ripma/Flickr)

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Below-zero cold feels crisp and comfortable on a windless February night. Overhead, stars sparkle and wink. The surrounding forest is dark and silent. I stand outside the back door while the dogs go about their business and listen.
 
This is the time of year when I may hear a sound resembling the back-up beeper on a delivery truck--the mating call of a tiny, saw-whet owl. Sometimes it comes from the conifers across the road or maybe from out back in the direction of the fire hall. Despite the cold and snow, it's springtime in owl world.
 
We don't often see the owls, but we are aware of their presence. A couple of years ago, we began finding furry tails along the sidewalk and in the snow near the feeder. Finally, we deduced their origin. The tails were all that remained of hapless flying squirrels, which visited our bird feeder after dark. A hungry owl had eaten everything else.
 
One winter when the snow was especially deep, we saw a diminutive boreal owl perched in the crabapple tree beside the feeder. The owl seemed tame, perhaps because it was starving. Deep snow makes it hard for predatory owls to catch small rodents.  Waiting near the feeder, the boreal owl had a chance to catch mice and shrews that emerged from the snowdrifts to seek scattered seeds. Another time, I found a dead boreal owl that apparently had flown into a garage window.
 
A few boreal owls nest in our northern forests, but more arrive as winter visitors. Snowy, great gray and northern hawk owls also winter here. The abundance of migrants varies annually and correlates with snow depths and small rodent numbers farther north. This winter, migrating great gray and boreal owls are relatively abundant.
 
This is good news for owl watchers. When northern owls arrive in Minnesota, they're hungry. This means they are actively hunting and thus likely to be seen by people. You don't have to be a hardcore birder to appreciate the strikingly fierce appearance of the great gray owl or to enjoy a happenstance encounter with any member of the owl clan.  But if you are a birder, northern Minnesota is owl Mecca.
 
While the owls have been coming here for eons, hardcore birders are more recent arrivals. An extraordinary invasion of great gray owls in 2005 drew national attention from the birding community. Now birders from all over the country trek to the Sax-Zim bog north of Duluth every winter to see great grays and other owls, as well as other uncommon birds such as northern shrikes and boreal chickadees.
 
Last weekend, birders flocked (pardon the pun) to Meadowlands, a tiny town on the edge of the Sax-Zim bog, for the annual winter birding festival. They climbed into a small fleet of yellow school buses and vans to cruise bog back roads on guided birding tours. For traveling birders, a trip to northern Minnesota is a snowy safari. While Meadowlands may never become as popular with wildlife watchers as, say, Kenya, the Sax-Zim bog was featured in the New York Times last month and in a 2012 movie about avid birders called “The Big Year.”
 
That birding is the subject of a movie attests to the activity’s growing popularity. Perusing the website Birding-Minnesota.com, I found a surprisingly busy calendar of birding events occurring in every corner of the state.  Avian events include a three-day Festival of Owls in Houston, Eagle Watch Weekends in Red Wing, a Boreal Birding Festival in Grand Marais, a Festival of Birds in Detroit Lakes and a Hummingbird Hurrah in Henderson. In addition, birders can sign up for small group tours to prairie potholes, national wildlife refuges and other wild areas.
 
While some outdoors enthusiasts may roll their eyes at the thought of a birding festival, national survey data shows wildlife watching is becoming as popular as hunting and fishing. According to the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation (the most recent state data available), Minnesota had 2.1 million wildlife watchers and 1.6 million hunters and anglers. The state had 1.4 million wild bird observers, including 506,000 who traveled away from home to see birds. Wild bird observers spent $699 million on their recreation, including trip-related expenditures of $271 million. In comparison, trip-related expenditures cost anglers $806 million and hunters $167 million.
 
Wildlife watching and other non-consumptive activities are growing segments of outdoor recreation, which may partially explain the Obama Administration’s recent selection of Sally Jewell to lead the Department of the Interior. Most recently the CEO of outdoor gear retailer REI, Jewell undoubtedly understands the societal and economic value of outdoor recreation. In fact, she has been at the forefront of the outdoor industry’s efforts to convince politicians that outdoor recreation is a big business—and thus protecting the wild places where people recreate is good for business.
 
Some pundits suggest she may have an uphill climb making this point to the White House, because the Obama Administration hasn’t placed a priority on conservation. In fact, the environmental website Grist reports President Obama has protected less land administratively than any of the four presidents who preceded him—including George W. Bush. Obama has also pursued an aggressive approach to energy development on public lands. Often, that development comes at the cost of reduced outdoor recreation. Jewell’s challenge is to strike a balance between many competing uses of land that belongs to everyone.
 
All of this may matter little to birders on safari in a remote northern Minnesota bog. The only energy development planned for our bogs is harvesting willow brush as biomass fuel, which actually is beneficial for owls and other open-country birds. However, a birder who makes a winter sojourn from Chicago or New York to northern Minnesota just to see an owl is placing a value on wildlife—a value that can be measured in dollars and cents. That’s important to Interior Secretary Jewell. In the grim reality of conservation politics, even an owl needs to add something to the bottom line in order to survive.

Airdate: February 22, 2013


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