The old adage of Schrödinger’s Cat is often used to frame a basic concept of quantum theory.
We use it to explain the peculiar, but important, concept of superposition; where something can exist in multiple states at once.
For Schrodinger’s feline friend – the simultaneous states were dead and alive.
Superposition is what makes quantum computing so potentially powerful.
Standard computer processors rely on packets or bits of information, each one representing a single yes or no answer.
Quantum processors are different. They don’t work in the realm of yes or no, but in the almost surreal world of yes and no. This twin-state of quantum information is known as a qubit.
To harness their power, you have to link multiple qubits together, a process called entanglement.
With each additional qubit added, the computation power of the processor is effectively doubled.
But generating and linking qubits, then instructing them to perform calculations in their entangled state is no easy task. They are incredibly sensitive to external forces, which can give rise to errors in the calculations and in the worst-case scenario make the entangled qubits fall apart.
As additional qubits are added, the adverse effects of these external forces mount.
One way to cope with this is to include additional qubits whose sole role is to vet and correct outputs for misleading or erroneous data.
This means that more powerful quantum computers – ones that will be useful for complex problem solving, like working out how proteins fold or modelling physical processes inside complex atoms – will need lots of qubits.
Dr Tom Watson, based at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and one of the authors of the paper, told BBC News: “You have to think what it will take to do useful quantum computing. The numbers are not very well defined but it’s probably going to take thousands maybe millions of qubits, so you need to build your qubits in a way that can scale up to these numbers.”
In short, if quantum computers are going to take off, you need to come up with an easy way to manufacture large and stable qubit processors.
And Dr Watson and his colleagues thought there was an obvious solution.
Tried and tested
“As we’ve seen in the computer industry, silicon works quite well in terms of scaling up using the fabrication methods used”, he said.
The team of researchers, which also included scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, turned to silicon to suspend single electron qubits whose spin was fixed by the use of microwave energy.
In the superposition state, the electron was spinning both up and down.
The team were then able to connect two qubits and programme them to perform trial calculations.
They could then cross-check the data generated by the quantum silicon processor with that generated by a standard computer running the same test calculations.
The data matched.
The team had successfully built a programmable two-qubit silicon-based processor.
Commenting on the study, Prof Winfried Hensinger, from the University of Sussex, said: “The team managed to make a two qubit quantum gate with a very respectable error rate. While the error rate is still much higher than in trapped ion or superconducting qubit quantum computers, the achievement is still remarkable, as isolating the qubits from noise is extremely hard.”
He added: “It remains to be seen whether error rates can be realised that are consistent with the concept of fault-tolerant quantum computing operation. However, without doubt this is a truly outstanding achievement.”
And in an accompanying paper, an international team, led by Prof Jason Petta from Princeton University, was able to transfer the state of the spin of an electron suspended in silicon onto a single photon of light.
According to Prof Hensinger, this is a “fantastic achievement” in the development of silicon-based quantum computers.
He explained: “If quantum gates in a solid state quantum computer can ever be realised with sufficiently low error rates, then this method could be used to connect different quantum computing modules which would allow for a fully modular quantum computer.”
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.
I was prepared for a lot of things when I emerged from the internship birth canal and became a full-time working person: Show up on time, don’t overdo it on the exclamation points, and always ask about a business woman’s special.
But there were some things no career counselor, professor, sister, friend, or parent warned me about!!!!!! (Clearly, I’ve gone rogue on the exclamation point thing.) My first year or so of work was filled with so much “Wait, is it just me, or…” and, “Well, I guess that’s a thing” that I wanted to write a strongly worded letter to everyone who’d given me career advice because it all fell so short.
Every workplace and job is different, but in talking to people in my five and a half years of work experience, I’ve discovered that the things that really took me by surprise are pretty universal. So instead of writing that strongly worded letter, I’m going to share them here as one giant subtweet/PSA instead:
1.It’s really hard getting used to the fact that this is your life…for the rest of your life.
2.It’s a little weird to drink with your boss and coworkers at first.
3.Just because you have a job doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep your resume updated.
4.Your work BFF will probably leave, but you’ll survive.
5.There are a lot of a horrible bosses out there who are also great people.
6.You might love your job and hate your coworkers.
7.You might hate your job and love your coworkers.
8.Either way, leaving a job because you hate your coworkers isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be happy at your next one.
9.It’s hard to maintain hobbies/side hustles/activities when you have a full-time job, but it’s worth it.
10.You could wear the same outfit every day and most people wouldn’t notice.
11.There’s more to networking than just going to a young professionals happy hour.
12.It’s ok if your first job isn’t the exact type of position you want, or even in the field you want.
13.Pooping at the office is normal and necessary.
14.Your professional success isn’t a direct reflection of your personal success.
15.It’s not just you; everyone feels like they don’t totally know what they’re doing at least once a week.
“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.