Visitors to Montreal still have time to see Une brèche en toute chose (“A Crack in Everything”), a multimedia art exhibit that pays tribute to the late Leonard Cohen.
More than a year after his death, Montreal is still celebrating Leonard Cohen’s life. The poet, novelist, songwriter and singer is everywhere—from the Main Deli, where he enjoyed smoked meat in the second booth against the wall, to the Jewish Public Library, with which Cohen was affiliated. But one of the largest tributes began two years before Cohen’s death—at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) as part of the city’s 375th anniversary celebration. It opened one year after his passing.
The exhibit contains no artifacts belonging to Cohen; no fedoras, long black coats or guitars—only his olive-green Olivetti manual typewriter on which he composed his first novel. What there is, though, is more impressive: filmmakers, musicians, contemporary artists and their takes on how Cohen influenced society.
The exhibit—which runs until April 9, 2018— titled Une brèche en toute chose(“A Crack in Everything”) features tribute pieces from filmmakers, musicians and contemporary artists.
With Cohen’s blessing, and with his complete artistic output made available to them, curators John Zeppetelli and Victor Shiffman, compiled the museum’s most ambitious exhibition, commissioning 20 works from 40 artists representing 10 countries to bring a unique vision to Cohen’s effect on music and literature.
Consider Berlin-based Candice Breitz’s offering: the life-sized projection of 18 ardent male fans aged 65 and older encircling the viewer as they sing, “I’m Your Man,” backed by the all-male Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir (the synagogue Cohen attended throughout his life).
British Columbia-based Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller pay homage to Book of Longing with an interactive sound installation called “The Poetry Machine.” Pressing a single key on the vintage Wurlitzer organ generates Cohen’s voice reading an excerpt from the book from one of the gramophone horns. Play more than one key, and the room is filled with Cohen’s voice reading several selections simultaneously.
American Taryn Simon offers a mixed media installation of the front page of the New York Times, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, with Cohen’s obituary published beneath a photograph of the first meeting between Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump. Cohen is doffing his hat in greeting or farewell.
From psychological suspense that recalls the best of Hitchcock to international espionage that strikes all too close to home, these page-turners top our must-read list – but be forewarned, they may have you burning the midnight oil.
THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW: A NOVEL (William Morrow) by A.J. Finn
The unreliable female narrator (alaGirl On a Train and Gone Girl) is all the rage in “grip-lit” these days, but Finn’s smart Hitchcockian thriller takes it to another level with his story of agoraphobic former psychologist, Anna Fox. Separated from her family, she spends her days drinking copious amounts of red wine, watching old movies and spying on her neighbours. But her predictable routine is turned upside down when she witnesses a murder in a neighbour’s house. Or does she? After police find no signs of a crime –believing her judgment is impaired from prescription drugs and the aforementioned wine — even Anna questions what she saw.
Touted as one of the year’s most anticipated debut, the much-buzzed The Woman in the Window shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and is already in development as a major film from Fox. A.J. Finn is a pseudonym for Daniel Mallory, an executive editor at William Morrow, the novel’s publisher.
THE PERFECT NANNY: A NOVEL by Leila Slimani
It’s every parent’s nightmare. The “perfect nanny” you trust to look after your children suddenly falls apart, and in the worst possible way. The prize-winning novel, which was a runaway hit in France, is inspired by the 2012 real life murder of two children in New York City by their nanny.
ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL (Atria) by Sarah Vaughan
The scandal in this story may sound uncomfortably familiar: A government minister, and boyhood friend of the Prime Minister, is accused of rape by his assistant, putting into motion a legal thriller that could have come straight from today’s #MeToo headlines. A riveting read about Britain’s powerful and long-entitled elite and the women caught up in their wake.
NEED TO KNOW (Random House) by Karen Cleveland
This domestic thriller also has a ripped-from-the-headlines story line, this time about Russian spies meddling in American affairs. While investigating a Soviet sleeper cell, CIA agent Vivian Miller is forced to face the fact her own husband may be a Russian spy, and she, his target. This debut novel from Karen Cleveland, herself a former CIA analyst, is already set to be made into a film with Charlize Theron.
THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER (Grand Central) by Sara Blaedel
From the author of the popular Louise Rick police procedural series (The Forgotten Girls, The Killing Forest) The Undertaker’s Daughter marks the launch of a new suspense series from Denmark’s most popular novelist. The story follows a young Danish woman who journeys to America after receiving an unexpected inheritance from a father she hasn’t heard from in three decades, only to find herself in the middle of an unsolved murder – and a killer who is very much alive.
Release date: Feb. 6, 2018
THE MITFORD MURDERS (Minotaur) by Jessica Fellowes
From the author of Downton Abbey—A Celebration: The Official Companion to all Six Seasons, it’s not surprising that Fellow’s foray into mystery fiction is rich in period detail. The story, based on the life of the famed Mitford sisters, involves a real unsolved murder in the 1920s.
DANGEROUS CROSSING: A NOVEL (Atria) by Rachel Rhys
Murder and mayhem on the high seas. In 1939, with Europe on the brink of war, a young Englishwoman running from a shadowy past boards an ocean liner in Essex, bound for Australia. But she is not the only one with a dark secret. In the tradition of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, the glamour of the voyage fades, setting the stage for something truly sinister.
A hot cup of coffee or any other drink that uses water from the airplane’s onboard water system.
A flight attendant for a major airline, who was quoted anonymously to protect her job, explained in an interview for Vice:
Don’t drink the coffee on airplanes. It’s the same potable water that goes through the bathroom system. We recently had a test for E. coli in our water and it didn’t pass, and then maintenance came on and hit a couple buttons and it passed. So, avoid any hot water or tea. Bottled and ice is fine, of course.
Another flight attendant told Business Insider,
Flight attendants will not drink hot water on the plane. They will not drink plain coffee, and they will not drink plain tea.
You’d think that an airplane’s water storage and plumbing systems would be designed in a way that would prevent any possibility of contamination from occurring, and according to the airlines, that is the case. However, some flight attendants claim that these systems are not cleaned on a regular basis. According to a flight attendant interviewed by Travel + Leisure magazine, airplane water tanks “are probably only cleaned out every six months to a year.”
Indeed, when the EPA tested water from a variety of commercial airlines in 2012, the agency found that 12 percent of aircraft in the U.S. had at least one positive for coliform bacteria, which are found in the waste of humans and animals and are an indicator of the presence of pathogens, such as E. coli, that can cause illness and even death.
Surprisingly, this is about the same figure as eight years earlier, when the EPA tested the drinking water from 158 randomly selected domestic and international passenger airplanes and found that 12.6 percent did not meet EPA drinking water quality standards.
An investigation by Dallas-based television news station NBC 5 found that some airlines do better than others. In 2012, 13 percent of American Airlines planes were found to have coliform bacteria in their onboard water supplies (with fewer than half of 1 percent testing positive for E. coli), while only 3 percent of Southwest Airlines planes tested positive for coliform (with no tests positive for E. coli).
You’re a honeybee. Despite being around 700,000 times smaller than the average human, you’ve got more of almost everything. Instead of four articulated limbs, you have six, each with six segments. (Your bee’s knees, sadly, don’t exist.) You’re exceptionally hairy. A shock of bristly setae covers your body and face to help you keep warm, collect pollen, and even detect movement. Your straw-like tongue stretches far beyond the end of your jaw, but has no taste buds on it. Instead, you “taste” with other, specialized hairs, called sensillae, that you use to sense the chemicals that brush against particular parts of your body.
You’ve got five eyes. Two of them, called compound eyes and made up of 6,900 tiny lenses, take up about half your face. Each lens sends you a different “pixel,” which you use to see the world around you. The colors you see are different. Red looks like black to you and your three “primary” colors are blue, green, and ultraviolet. You detect motion insanely well, but outlines are fuzzy and images blocky, like a stained-glass window. (Your three other eyes detect only changes in light to tell you quickly if something dangerous is swooping your way.)
Now that you’re a honeybee you can do all kinds of things you couldn’t before. Your four wings move at 11,400 strokes per minute. You can sense chemicals in the air. You’re fluent in waggle dance, so you’re able to tell the other members of your colony where the nectar supplies are. But how much does any of this tell us about what it actually feels like to be a bee?
We all know what it’s like to be ourselves—to be conscious of the world around us, and be conscious of that consciousness. But what consciousness means more generally, for other people and other creatures, is a hot potato tossed between philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and anyone who’s ever wondered whether it feels the same to be a dog as it does to be an octopus. In general, we think that if you have some kind of unique, subjective experience of the world, you’re conscious to some extent. The problem is that in trying to envisage any consciousness besides our own, we run into the limits of the human imagination. In the case of honeybees, it’s hard to know if interesting behavior is reflective of an interesting experience of the world or masks a more simple stimulus-response existence. The lights are on, but is anyone home? To examine these questions means to take a ride on that hot potato—from philosopher to scientist and back again and again and again.
More and more, scientific research seems to suggest that bees do have a kind of consciousness, even as myths and misconceptions about their capacities persist. In a recent TED Talk, cognitive scientist Andrew B. Barron of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, described how he had had to be lovingly “talked down” from a “pearl-clutching” moment after someone asked him whether bees actually have brains. They do, of course.
Understanding what their consciousness might look or feel like is probably a fool’s errand. It’s really hard to imagine what it’s like to be almost anything or anyone other than what you are, says philosopher Colin Klein, also from Macquarie University, who has worked extensively alongside Barron. With people, it’s much easier. “You can talk to them, you can read fiction, there are a lot of things you can do—but it takes a certain amount of work to get into that space and in particular to realize what you experience, what you don’t experience, what your horizons look like,” he says. But the more different the experience of the organism you’re trying to imagine is, the harder it becomes. “You can start to think at least in what senses the experience of something like a bee might be different from ours”—how they structure the world around them, say, or whether they experience “space” the way we do.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” suggests that being “like” something else is possible only if the target is conscious of the world around it. “The fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism,” he writes. Or, “fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.” On top of that mindscrabble, our ability to imagine ourselves as another being is limited by the world that we know—as people. We might be able to imagine having webbed arms and hands, like a bat, or five eyes, like a bee, but the specific senses and abilities these animals possess are frankly inconceivable. “I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task,” he adds. Moreover, “I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it.”
Despite these difficulties, what we want to know, Klein and Barron wrote in an op-edin The Conversation in 2016, is whether bees and other insects “can feel and sense the environment from a first-person perspective.”
It seems likely that there are lots of different kinds of consciousness, of varying levels of complexity. As human beings, not only are we aware of ourselves and the world around us, we’re also aware of that awareness. A step down in complexity might lack that awareness of self-awareness. And a step down from that might be limited to a distinctive experience of the external world only.
Such a simple ladder may not be the best way to organize this kind of complexity, says David Chalmers, a leather jacket-wearing Australian philosopher at New York University best known for his work in philosophy of mind—a branch of philosophy that asks these kinds of questions. “But there are probably different ways of arranging states of mind, or consciousness, in a hierarchy,” he says. What’s harder to distinguish is the precise point where consciousness ends, and what the light switch, “on-off,” moment might be, further down the evolutionary chain. “It’s awfully hard to see what a borderline case of being conscious would be,” he says, even while it’s not that hard to know what a borderline case of being alive might look like, as in a virus. “It would sort of feel like something,” he says, trailing off in thought, “but not.”
So far as bee consciousness goes, however, he thinks there are likely to be some factors in consciousness that we share, like vision, and some that we don’t at all, “whether it’s sensory systems that humans have that bees don’t have, or whether it’s things more like concepts, like language, that give us a kind of consciousness that bees don’t have.”
Klein is more specific. “We think that bees have experiences that feel like something to the bee,” he says. “We don’t think the bees are aware of having experiences that feel like something to them. The bee is not going round saying to itself, ‘Gee, it’s a lovely day, look at that flower.’ It doesn’t have any of these more sophisticated, reflexive kinds of consciousness.”
Still, despite having a brain that is a fraction of the size of even the tiniest mammal’s, bees seem capable of some incredibly complex behaviors and mental gymnastics. Studies over the last few decades have revealed them to do everything from having a concept of zero to experiencing emotion, from tool use to social learning. If you give them cocaine, they dance more vigorously and tend to overestimate how much pollen they’ve foraged. If they watch a plastic bee scoring goals with a soccer ball, they can follow suit for a sugar water reward. Wouldn’t these complex behaviors be enough to assume some kind of consciousness? Not necessarily, says Barron. “Honeybees are unusual among the insects in that they have a whole list of clever things that they are able to do,” he says. “And some people would say that that means that they are more likely to be conscious. I disagree with that.”
Think of all the other things able to perform complicated tasks that we’re pretty sure aren’t conscious. Robots do everything from juggle to play the piano, but, as far as we know, are “dark” inside. Like bees, Roomba vacuum cleaners make decisions, navigate around the world, and adapt—but there’s probably nothing it’s “like” to be one of them. And plants have been shown to have a kind of memory: Over time, for example, they can learn that being repeatedly dropped isn’t anything to freak out about. But few suggest they possess consciousness.
“I think this is one of the problems with the behavioral approach, is that it encourages this looking for very clever things,” says Klein. “Whereas if consciousness is a widespread phenomenon, you should expect that it might be in a lot of different types of things that don’t necessarily do the things that we take to be markers of consciousness.”
If behavior can’t enough tell us about the inner life of a bee, perhaps the structure of their sesame seed–sized brains can. In a human brain, key studies suggest consciousness lies in the midbrain, an evolutionarily much older section. In a study published last year, Barron and Klein investigated the structure of the bee brain, which seems to be made up of similar bits to our own, with a region responsible for similar tasks. “It’s smaller, it’s organized differently, it’s different-shaped, but if you look at the kind of computations it does, it’s doing the same sort of things as the midbrain,” Klein says. “So if you think in humans the midbrain is responsible for being conscious, and you think this is doing the same kind of thing, then you ought to think insects are conscious as well.”
This biological approach opens up consciousness to a variety of other organisms that don’t do the clever things that bees do, like beetles or potato bugs. They might be less obviously interesting, but that doesn’t make them less likely to be conscious. The technology that allows us to examine insect brains on a neuron-by-neuron level is very new, Barron says. “If they really are instinctive, then we’re learning something about what the insect brain is capable of. If they’re not, then we’re learning something more profound.”
The technology also allows us to map the brains of organisms that we think probably aren’t conscious, and assess what they lack. Caenorhabditis elegans is a roundworm commonly used in scientific research. In recent years, scientists have developed a connectome—a sort of complex brain map—for this tiny soil-dweller, which measures barely a millimeter in length. “They have 302 neurons,” says Klein, compared to a bee’s 960,000 and a human’s 86 billion. “Those [worms], we think, are actually very much like robots, like complicated robots.” If exposed to a particular stimulus, they respond in a particular, predictable way. “Unless there’s some kind of danger, and then it does that, unless it’s hungry, and then it does this—so you can really map out what it’s going to do.” In bees, he says, there seems to be a kind of qualitative shift, in which the brain is somehow more than its connections.
All of this neurobiology is beginning to paint a picture—that it feels like nothing to be a C. elegans, or a robot, or a plant, but it probably feels like something to be a bee. If that’s the case, it is still not known where, between the roundworm and the honeybee, that awareness switches on, if it does. While neurobiology is a very important part of the story, says Chalmers, “it may not settle the issue of consciousness. You very frequently find a situation where two people might agree on the neurobiology of a given case, but disagree on what that implies about consciousness.” He gives the example of fish, and the ongoing discourse about whether their neurobiology suggests that they do or do not feel pain. “Knowing the neurobiological facts doesn’t necessarily settle the question.”
We can try to imagine what it’s like to have six hairy legs, or see in pixels, or crave nectar. We can even try to imagine what it’s like to be part of a hive, a superorganism with motivations of its own. But what it’s actually like to be a bee—its subjective experience of the world—is going to remain elusive. But we’re starting to figure out that it’s probably like something. And that’s not nothing.
“You think it’s all made up don’t yea, think it’s all yarns and newspaper stories”. – Charley Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
On March 11, 1874, Pinkerton agent Joseph W. Whicher’s body was found lifeless near Independence, Missouri. He was 26, he was married, and had a whole life ahead of him to father and raise children with his loving wife, Mollie Hildenbrand.
However, fate had other plans for this young blood who was sent to find and arrest one of the most notorious gang leaders at the time.
That man was Jesse James, the outlaw, the folk hero, the legend, and the murderer, and his partner in crime and a fellow former Confederate soldier, his older brother Frank. Both were wanted criminals in various states on multiple accounts of larceny, extortion, and murder, as well as suspected of additional illegal activities. As of December 1869, when both robbed the bank in Gallatin, Missouri, and Jesse in cold blood shot and killed the bank president John W. Sheets, a “Wanted Dead or Alive” price had been set on their heads, after which both were constantly on the move, robbing the rich from state to state along with their gang of outlaws and giving the loot to the poor, allegedly.
“Got out of there, damn you get out of there; we are grangers, and rob the rich and give to the poor,” wrote the St. Louis Daily Globe under the headline “Diabolical Attempt to Wreck a Night Express Train – Engineer Killed, Engine Ditched and Tender and Baggage Cars Crushed,”published on July 23, 1873, about the attempted robbery of a Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific night train that took place two days previously in Adair County, Iowa, of which Jesse and Frank, as well as the Younger brothers, Cole and Bob were suspected.
Nine months, a couple of stagecoaches and some train robberies later, and seemingly out nowhere, on March 9, agent Whicher was allegedly seen on a horse, bound and gagged, with three other men alongside him. The next day he was found dead with fatal wounds in his head, neck, and shoulder, all from shots fired from close range, which strongly indicates he was executed. According to Frank and Jesse James: The Story Behind the Legend by Ted P. Yeatman, descriptions given by the occasional passerby and the ferry operator suggested the three men were Arthur McCoy, Jim Anderson (“Bloody Bill” Anderson’s Brother), and non other than Jesse James himself.
So how does a young man, freshly wed, get himself executed by a legend who was labeled a Robin Hood and a gentleman by commoners?
Well, as banks were long shots even for criminals of Jesse James’ caliber, or that of Butch Cassidy, his Wild Bunch and the Sundance Kid, who truly knew how to pull off a heist, stagecoaches with loot that only had a driver and one armed guard to protect it were the best next thing. And then there were trains. Everyone knew what train would pass where and when precisely, and some passed during night hours, carrying money from banks related to esteemed Union generals and various politicians in the express safe down in the baggage car. Interestingly enough, the safes were more often than not unusually low on cash.
By this time, the reward offered for the capture of Jesse and the members of his gang was off the roof. Realizing that trains were their, let’s say, preferable cup of tea, Alan Pinkerton, a leader of the Union’s Intelligence Service throughout the Civil War and currently head of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency that he founded in 1850 in Chicago, got an offer he could not refuse and turned to tracking down train robbers in the 1860s when the American Railroad Express hired him and his agency to assemble a special task force in order to put an end to it.
They paid a lot, but he was worth it, every penny of it. After all, his reputation preceded him. In 1861 he successfully uncovered a sinister plot and saved the life of the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.
Anyhow, the time had come and he was assigned in the 1870s to track down and capture the James brothers and the Youngers “dead or alive.” The agency’s code strictly forbade the Pinkerton’s agents from accepting reward money, so they were never really after the bounty, but the challenge was still greater than any other. Not to mention the fact that the capture alone of Jesse James and his gang, if executed efficiently, was about to bring a priceless reputation for him and his agency.
Turn down reward money, was yes, their first rule of conduct, but the Pinkerton Code set some other standards within its ranks. Such as, accept no bribes, never compromise with criminals or partner with local law enforcement agencies among the rest. Going first and foremost by their own rules, the agency devised a fine plan of how to catch their targets, as well as a practice that was revolutionary.
According to Larry Earl Schweikart, an American historian and professor of history at the University of Dayton who wrote the article “The Non-Existent Frontier Bank Robbery,” “Pinkerton detectives put together a special operations force of crack shots and expert riders who rode in separate cars with their horses, or even separate trains that trailed behind the ‘target.’ The Pinkertons could react rapidly to a robbery, ultimately making it too difficult to consistently hit trains.” This was perhaps the reason why safes in these so-called target trains were unusually low on cash, like on July 21, 1873, when Jesse’s gang hit the Night Express Train in Adair, Iowa, we previously mentioned and found only $3,000, and the same amount, more or less, when they robbed the safe of a train in Gad’s Hill, Missouri, on January 31, 1874. They were probably baits.
As for Jesse, according to Pinkerton’s official website, the Pinkerton Agency composed huge criminal databases out of everything that was related to the criminals they were after. And we mean everything! Mugshots, people’s recollections, witness accounts, hearsay, as well as every single newspaper story published that in one way or another was somehow about them and the things they did, praised, or condemned.
And there were a lot. Many believed they were heroes and tried to depict them as such. Others wished nothing else than their capture. But for Pinkerton, they were just tiny pieces of evidence and clues about their potential whereabouts, and he used them to track them down. It was a practice not heard of before and it proved to be effective. They were found at last.
In March 1874, one of their agents was tasked to infiltrate the home of Zerelda Samuel, Jesse’s and Frank’s mother. Some believed the agent was a former criminal who wished to redeem himself and could get inside their circles with ease. Some say his alleged criminal activities were just a cover-up story made up to help him get inside. Nonetheless, he did get in but never made the trip back out alive. His name was Joseph W. Whicher and he was found dead in a ditch, executed.
At the same time, according to multiple reports (William A. Settle, Marley Brant, Ted P. Yeatman, Homer Croy), two other agents Louis J. Lull, aka W. J. Allen, aka Lull, and Ed Daniels were sent for the Youngers. Both died in a gunfight, though Lull managed to kill one of the brothers, John Younger.
After these unfortunate events, Alan Pinkerton personally tried to catch Jesse himself and avenge the agents’ deaths but never did. On April 3, 1882, Jesse was assassinated by Robert Ford, in a cowardly fashion.
“Can’t figure it out, do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” – Jesse James to Robert Ford.
He was 34 and he was killed at close range by a shot fired through the back of his skull, and by a man who he believed was his friend, but turned out to be something else. Pinkerton died two years after Jesse’s death. He had personally never managed to catch Jesse James, but his legacy lives on.
By the end of the following decade, the agency had 2,000 active agents and an additional 30,000 within its ranks. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was credited with disbanding the Wild Bunch, and by the 1960s had earned such glory and fame that it had no less but 60 offices nationwide. On one occasion in 1968 they were even called on to protect and escort Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa across the Atlantic.
At the turn of the millennium, Securitas AB, probably the largest provider of security services across the world, bought both Pinkerton and Burns detective agencies, the same year that Pinkerton was celebrating its 150 years of existence and good service for people in need.
To honor the legacy, all that was salvaged over the years and was theirs to give, was given to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., accompanied by a statement that reads:
“We are honored that the Library of Congress considers our archives to be of historical significance and are proud to share the details of our organization’s past with the nation.” The agency was never known to be an all-boys club, was never a white-only organization either, and today, after almost 170 years of existence, Pinkerton Consulting and Investigations is still here if needed.
With their powdery white feathers and haunting yellow eyes, snowy owls are one of the most iconic animals of the Arctic. They’re also one of the only ones that makes regular visits into the non-Arctic, with jaw-dropping owl blizzards making regular appearances in southern Canada and the northern United States during their annual winter migration.
Yet this seeming abundance of snowies masks the unfortunate fact that these charismatic birds are in more danger than ever before. Exactly what threats they’re facing has been tough to suss out, because snowy owls don’t have easy-to-trace regular migrations; they’re “highly nomadic at all points in their life cycle,” says Scott Weidensaul, a Pennsylvania naturalist and owl researcher who runs a program to track these birds on their far-flung travels.
For scientists, where snowy owls go and what they do throughout the year is still largely mysterious—which is becoming a problem as climate threats to the birds mount.
In December 2017, the International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the snowy owl’s status to “vulnerable” on its updated Red List of endangered species in light of new research. That designation will allow researchers to monitor the species with more scrutiny and better argue for their conservation, says wildlife biologist Denver Holt, founder of the Owl Research Institute. “The snowy owls are an indicator, in my mind, of the health of the Arctic environment,” he says. “They’re also clearly the avian icon of Arctic conservation.”
Until recently, researchers estimated that there were 300,000 owls (including 140,000 in North America) in the wild, a number extrapolated from an early-2000s population sample from one portion of Arctic tundra taken during peak season. In 2013, Bryn Athyn College biologist Eugene Potapov and Arctic expert Richard Sale challenged that estimate, saying it didn’t reflect snow owl cycles and their nomadic lifestyle. In their book The Snowy Owl, they took a different approach, looking at owls during breading seasons across the tundra subzones to find that their population was more like 30,000—though the authors caution that even that is simply “a guesstimate.”
In his annual research trips, Potapov has witnessed a changing Arctic, with transformed snow conditions and melted sea ice. Based on this rapid environmental change, he and others believe the snowy owl population may be even lower. In its 2016 annual report, bird research and conservation organization Partners In Flight noted that the snowy owl population is “believed to be rapidly declining” while acknowledging that “populations are difficult to estimate.”
The snowy owl’s irregular movements are tied to a semi-regular natural process: the lemming population cycle. Lemmings may be best known for the urban myth of jumping off cliffs en masse (which dates back to a 1950s Disney “documentary” that involved manually driving lemmings off of a cliff). In reality, they a key food source for the snowy owl. But there’s a lot of boom and bust in the lemming population, meaning that means every few years—around four years in many areas across the Arctic—an extra-cold year with fluffy insulating snow creates the perfect conditions for these rodents to have lots and lots of delicious babies.
A high lemming year is a feast for carnivores like the Arctic fox, the Arctic wolf, and, of course, the snowy owl. The raptors, who like every other Arctic species live in extreme conditions, rely on the wealth of prey provided by a lemming boom to have a good breeding season. After they breed, snowy owls head south in great numbers for the winter. This year’s owl boom is an echo of the 2013 snowy “mega-irruption,” when an estimated 8,000 birds headed south to the United States, reaching as far as Florida and Bermuda.
Previously, scientists believed snowy owls irrupted because they were starving in the Arctic, having exhausted their lemming supply. However, it turns out that the snowy owls who come south actually tend to be relatively healthy and well-fed. Weidensaul says that irruptions may actually signal a boom year for the birds, when so many have bred that they can’t all stay in the Arctic, on sea ice or in the tundra, throughout the scarce winter.
During an irruption, younger owls strike out on their own in search of food and space. That quest kills many: the low-swooping birds get hit by vehicles, attacked by other raptors such as eagles, or poisonedby eating prey that has been exposed to rodenticides. Yet their fates, as well as their non-Arctic activities, are still poorly understood.
Weidensaul aims to change that. He is also the cofounder of Project SNOWstorm, which tracks the “winter movement ecology” of individual snowy owls. For the past five years, the project has been following around 65 individual owls that have been tagged using tiny solar-powered trackers attached to the birds like backpacks.
The trackers offer researchers an unprecedented amount of data on where the birds are, how they interact when they’re near each other, and what kinds of habitat they prefer. When the birds head out of cell range, the trackers store data and transmit it when they’re back in range, which means that even when they’re back up in the Arctic, chances are researchers will be able to collect their data when they head south again.
The information from these trackers has helped to confirm that many snowy owls who come south are in good health, partly by enabling dead birds to be found and analyzed. It’s also revealed that the snowies have wildly different habits: , while some birds cover thousands of miles over their wintering season, flying from place to place, others don’t move around very much at all. Those include Badger and Arlington, two owls that have stayed close to where they were tagged in Wisconsin during the 2017-2018 winter.
The data Badger, Arlington and their fellows collect helps conservationists make decisions that help snowies survive their changing world. A big part of that is an interruption to their stable relationship with lemmings. “The Arctic has changed,” Potapov says. “So you’ll see more irruptions and less breeding.”
In the meantime, know that the out-of-place owls you enjoy spotting outside the Arctic come with an important backstory. Snowy owls have be referred to as “possibly the world’s sexiest bird”—but for scientists, they are also one of the world’s most mysterious.