Snowy Owl in the rafters of a dairy barn in Addison, Jan. 25, 2012

The invasion of Snowy Owls into the United States this winter has been well publicized in the news and across the internet, and Vermont has not been left out of this story. In December there were many sightings of this tundra-breeding species across the state including a string of reports locally in the weeks around Christmas in Ferrisburgh, Panton, Shoreham and Addison. Not long after the New Year, though, they seemed to have vacated Vermont entirely. However, there was one Snowy Owl that did stick around taking up residence in a most unlikely place: a dairy barn in the town of Addison.

Cornwall resident Ian Worley was contacted about this owl after he was featured in an article about Snowy Owls written by Bryan Pfeiffer which ran in the Addison Independent. He went to the farm in early January to confirm it was a Snowy Owl and visited the barn weekly to view it and record its presence there. Since this is a working farm Ian was asked to keep the location a secret to prevent an influx of birders from disrupting their business. The owl was first discovered in the rafters of the barn on Jan 8th where it spent most of its time. The doors were left open at both ends of the barn to allow it to leave whenever it wished, but as far as anyone knows it never did. The eaten remains of four Pigeons found in the barn was taken as evidence the bird was managing to feed itself, though it was never actually seen hunting or eating.

Looking at the timing and location of Snowy Owl sightings reported to eBird leading up to the discovery of this owl in the barn made Ian to wonder if they represented the path of a single bird moving across the county, beginning with a sighting at Button Bay on December 10th. If so, this owl’s final location at the farm in Addison would be consistent with that pattern. You can see a map of these reports here (map). Click on the points to see details of each sighting.

As someone who regularly goes bird watching with Ian I was privileged to hear about this story as it was happening. During our discussions about this bird, I suggested that Ian contact Rodney Olsen who runs a raptor banding program out of the Hannaford Career Center in Middlebury to see about the possibility of having the owl captured and banded. Plans for that were made and permission was granted by the farm, but unfortunately on Feb 11th the Owl was found dead in the barn before those plans could come to fruition. Though the cause of death is unknown, speculation is that it either starved to death or that it succumbed to some unknown illness. It’s possible that illness is what drove it to move into the barn in the first place. Its body has been turned over to Vermont Fish & Wildlife.

Certainly this was a sad end to an interesting story.

– Ron Payne