Snowy Owls: a graceful poem in flight

People are getting purely blissed out on snowy owl sightings. These beautifully garbed carnivores, with legs booted in plumage and wings right out of a Japanese print, have traveled south from the Arctic in an irruption. What is an irruption, you say, and how is it different from a migration? Well, a migration is a “regular seasonal journey,” such as the annual odyssey of the monarch from Canada to Mexico, while irruptions happen in more capricious ways that are difficult to anticipate. Generally defined as “a breaking or bursting in,” irruptions are ecologically understood as the temporary exodus of a population when the checks and balances of their home environment swing out of control. In this case, the favored prey, lemmings, experienced a population crash, so their predator moved on to greener pastures.

While the wayfaring birds don’t seem to be especially drawn to cities, they do have a fondness for airports, with Boston’s being attractive enough to merit a mention in the New York Times. The airport actually sustains the largest population of snowy owls in the entire northeast. The terrain of Logan is very familiar to the owls, being so like their native Arctic tundra with its long, flat, treeless expanses. And while there certainly aren’t any lemmings in Massachusetts, the airport landscape is filled with delicate morsels such as voles (cousins of the lemming) and rats. For the birds, airports serve as an ideal home away from home, but the owls are large enough (over two feet tall, with a wingspan of nearly five) to pose a threat to aircraft. As a result they are typically captured, banded, and released in a less dodgy area. On occasion they are also fitted with tiny transmitters that allow researchers to map their wanderings.

As long as you live in the United States or southern Canada you should keep your eyes wide open during the next few months – with an owl seen as far south as Hawaii(!!), who knows where you may come across one. If you have already enjoyed an encounter with one of these beautiful birds I would truly love to hear about it in a comment.

Sources: Photographs – owl flying from http://www.hdcelebrity.net/, owl on wire from the Sam Zim blog. Title taken from Snowy Owl by David Lessard.

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Coyote comes to town

I am happily returned to Boston. While I dearly miss my friends and family out west, it has been wonderful to settle back into my life here. My days have been filled with naps, delicious food cooked by Matt, and walks filled with snow and one lone, charming coyote, relaxing in an overgrown lot a few blocks away from our house.

I am very familiar with the calls of these animals – their yipping, whooping, siren sounds have kept me awake and rapt through long nights on New England farmlands. However, I’d never actually seen one, and was quite shocked and fascinated when I did. The discovery has led me to consider what a prime habitat this corner of Boston offers – there are wooded lots, sumptuous dumpsters, and a medley of squirrels, rabbits, and small rodents like mice, moles, voles and rats.

Ancient American mythlore portrays Coyote as both creator and fool, and contemporary opinions of the animal are similarly nuanced. Whole websites are devoted to shooting, trapping, and poisoning coyotes, and there are videos of them being killed on Youtube. While they are infamous sheep eaters and are thus considered a threat on many livestock farms, coyotes present few dangers in urban and suburban living, where they may fit nicely into ecological niches as a nontoxic form of rodent control. It is unfortunately true that they will attack roaming cats and small dogs, but this can be avoided by keeping your animals indoors if coyotes are a potential threat. (Side note: the threat posed by coyotes is dwarfed by traffic mortality, which kills 5.4 million cats annually.)

Here in our cat-less Hyde Park household, the knowledge that we are cohabbing with coyotes just makes for a little extra intrigue while walking and a few double takes whenever sirens are heard at night.

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Coyote drawing by artist Susan Fox. Tracking sketches from Good Shepherd Farm Alapacas.

Protest SOPA/PIPA!!!

Hello! In solidarity with beloved sites like Boing Boing and Wikipedia, I am encouraging all Spokes and Petals readers to protest SOPA/PIPA in their own way. Something good to do would be to contact your senator real quick through this handy website. If you’re unfamiliar with SOPA/PIPA and why it deserves protesting, it can be read about in the Q/A section on this Wikipedia page (one of the few pages not shut down by the site today).

Giving my best to the midwest

Friends and strangers,

Hello from Chicago, where snow is finally falling as I sit cozily surrounded by potted trees, balloons, and fresh paint. I have had a long and wonderful month since last I wrote, but it’s been busy enough that my writing fell to the wayside. However, I return to Boston this weekend and am ready to embark upon a healthy hibernation, filled with much blogging, urban exploring, and knitting. Please check back in a few days for new posts about these environments that we’re finding ourselves in.

Until then, thanks for visiting, and three cheers to a robust, beautiful, and writerly 2012!

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