Razorbills breed along the Atlantic coast from Labrador to Maine and normally spend the winter in the cold ocean waters between Canada’s Atlantic provinces and North Carolina, but in the winter of 2012-13, they moved farther south. Thousands reached the Florida Keys, and some, emaciated and starving, made it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Many never completed the return trip to the breeding grounds. Thanks to workers at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and investigators at the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab, in Washington, D.C., we know at least one became a meal for a Snowy Owl.
The workers were performing a routine inspection of a runway in early February 2013, at the height of the seabird irruption, when they came upon a dead Snowy Owl. They sent the carcass to the Feather Lab to be preserved as a museum specimen.
A feature story in our April 2009 issue described how Feather Lab scientists identify what’s left of birds that are struck by aircraft. In this case, the investigators’ challenge was to make sense of the contents of the owl’s stomach — a mammalian skull, feathers, and several avian bones, including a furcula, or wishbone.
A comparison of the skull with similar items in the Smithsonian’s osteological collections showed that the mammal was a meadow vole, one of the Snowy Owl’s favorite prey species.
Microscopic examination of the feathers revealed barb lengths, pigmentation patterns, and other features that are characteristic of the family Alcidae — that is, auks, murres, and puffins.
Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill, Dovekie, and Black Guillemot all occur in the New York area during February. When the scientists checked specimens of these species for a furcula similar to the one discovered in the owl’s stomach, they found their match.
The Feather Lab researchers write in a recent issue of the Wilson Journal of Ornithology that they could not determine whether the Snowy Owl hunted or scavenged the Razorbill.
Read the abstract
Carla J. Dove and Charles P. J. Coddington (2015) Forensic Techniques Identify the First Record of Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) Feeding on a Razorbill (Alca torda). The Wilson Journal of Ornithology: September 2015, Vol. 127, No. 3, pp. 503-506. Abstract.
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