CHARLO — Perched behind the steering wheel of a Chevy Suburban, the back seat consumed by piles of ornithological field guides, binoculars and a high-powered spotting scope, the owl researcher stabs his finger through the open window, reciting the names of bird species circling the rolling grassland outside.
“Rough-legged hawk. Harrier. Bald eagle. Raven. Oh, there’s a northern shrike,” he says, glancing at his bewildered passenger. “They’re a carnivorous song bird. They use barbed-wire fences and thorns to impale their prey and tear at its flesh.”
So goes the animated narration by Denver Holt, who, as founder of the 30-year-old nonprofit Owl Research Institute in Charlo, knows more about the order strigiformes — the scientific name for owls — than almost anyone in the world.
Missing from today’s recitation, however, is the bird we’re here to find — a snowy owl.
Holt is known throughout the international ornithological community as “Mr. Owl,” and his meticulous research has informed some of the most in-depth, long-term studies of owls and owl behavior on record. For the past 25 years, Holt has studied the migratory patterns of snowy owls, tracking the magnificent birds’ journey from their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra south to his backyard in Charlo, where a converted farmhouse at the foot of the Mission Mountains, flanking the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge, serves as home and headquarters.
If anyone can find a snowy owl, it’s Holt, and today he is filled with hope, an infectious disposition that keeps the fire of optimism burning in his passengers.
“If I was a snowy owl, this is about the time of day when I’d get up and stretch out my wings, maybe cough up a pellet and find a perch to start hunting,” Holt says, scanning the horizon with his binoculars.
“We’ll find that owl,” he adds before climbing back into his Chevy.
Earlier that morning, a crisp, clear December day that dawned beneath the shadow of the Mission Mountains, a local rancher called Holt to report a big white bird perched on a nearby fence line, its plumage pure as the driven snow, its massive head rotating 270 degrees, browsing the farmland for prey: the great white owl of the North.
The sighting was noteworthy not only because of the owl’s regal presence or its eye-catching beauty, but due to its rarity this field season.
In years past, snowy owls have fled the Arctic in droves, migrating south to alight on the Mission Mountain Valley and brighten its skyline, their mere presence casting a mythic aura over the landscape. They arrive in irregular “irruptions” to hunt voles and other prey on the grassland, and Holt has maintained meticulous data to suggest that a prolific feeding season on the northern tundra corresponds with an abundance of snowies in his backyard.
This winter, however, the Owl Research Institute has received just two reports of snowy owls, and Holt confirmed this morning’s sighting with his own two eyes. A young female, he guesses, based on its size and barred markings.
Having studied the bird for more than 25 years, Holt knows that irregular migratory patterns are not unusual, citing recent reports of dozens of birds appearing in the Great Lakes region, including Michigan and Ohio, as evidence that they’re still breeding successfully in the Arctic, a success rate that corresponds with its available food sources — namely, lemmings, the Arctic rodent it primarily preys upon.
In years of strong lemming reproduction, there is often a corresponding increase in owl hatchlings. However, more predators put more stress on the prey base, as well as competition for it. When this pressure is sensed, the birds will disperse during winter in search of easier food, such as the voles that populate the Mission Valley. Because snowies are adapted to be highly nomadic, it is also difficult to generalize where and when they might appear (their last strong showing in Montana was 2012, when a blizzard of owls converged near Polson).
Anecdotal evidence aside, snowy owls are on a downward trend, a decline that tracks along with population fluctuations of lemmings in and around Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, where Holt has spent nearly every summer for 25 years studying the birds and their food sources. The relationship between lemmings and snowy owls is critical — the rodents crawling across the arctic tundra account for 90 percent of the white owls’ diet.
As snowfall patterns change in the face of climate change, however, lemmings, which live in burrows in the snow, are coming under threat.
“The health of the owls is key to everything else,” Holt said. “If climate change affects the lemmings, it will affect the snowy owl.”
A quarter-century of data provides an unusually in-depth glimpse at the species’ population trends, and could play a pivotal role in understanding how ecological impacts resulting from a warming world will flag changes in the global arctic ecosystem, even in the absence of other markers.
With its force of personality, the owl, like polar bears and arctic fox, is poised to be a charismatic ambassador to climate change, warning of potential problems and capturing the attention of an at-times apathetic public.
It’s what Holt refers to as “the power of owls,” a magnetic and alluring quality that causes the owl to emerge as a literary icon — think Harry Potter’s pet snowy owl, Hedwig, or the loquacious bard of Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood — as well as in consumer products.
A tour of Holt’s research institute reveals offices and cubbies brimming with owl memorabilia and assorted curios, which friends and colleagues have sent him through the years. Owl-shaped pepper-shakers, clocks coasters; trivets and trinkets; ugly owls and unbearably cute owls; “White Owl” whiskey and “White Owl” cigars.
“This tells you the popularity. It’s the power of owls,” Holt said. “There’s hardly any other group of animals in the world that is so widely recognized and generates so much interest.”
“You can’t sell a lemming. People just think it’s a big rat. But you can sell a big white owl,” he continued. “Polar bears and snowy owls are icons of conservation, and the snowy owl could really influence conservation decisions in the grasslands and the Arctic tundra.”
To that end, Holt and Liberty DeGrandpre, development director of the Owl Research Institute, recently applied for and received a grant to analyze snowy owl data for climate change. They will partner with the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, based in Seewiesen, Germany — arguably the most prestigious ornithology research center in the world — to conduct the statistical analysis.
The power of the owl is a unifying theme throughout Holt’s research, and his mission to employ owls as the poster child of conservation is enjoying a degree of success if his webcams are any testament.
For the past five years, the Owl Research Institute has partnered with Explore.org, an arm of the Annenberg Foundation, to share owls and owl behavior with the rest of the world.
In 2017, the institute’s three live cameras streamed 24/7 observations of great gray owls, great horned owls and osprey, allowing nighttime observations with infrared lighting. They have attracted viewers in every country, generating 4.5 million page views that represented 2.7 million independent page views.
“Obviously, these cams enable us to bring our message and educational programs to a large audience,” Holt said, adding that they also provide untold research benefits by offering year-round glimpses into owl behavior.
By design, Holt, 60, has spent his entire career in the field, rejecting the clinical setting of academia and the monotony of indoor research and embracing the freedom of an outdoor work environment, even as the rigors of owl research catches up to him.
Holt and his passengers still haven’t seen the snowy owl, the specter of which preoccupied their day, but the researcher’s enthusiasm hasn’t flagged even as the setting sun sconces the snow-draped Mission Mountains in pink alpenglow. They retreat to the research institute, where upon parking the Chevy he immediately spies a pair of great horned owls roosting in a tree.
“When I drove up here in 1987 to decide whether or not to buy this place, the first thing I saw was two great horned owls sitting outside,” Holt says. “I knew right then that I had to have it.”