NEWBURYPORT — When a person gets stressed, it can be debilitating. But when a snowy owl, like the kind spotted inside Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, gets stressed, it can die.
For that reason, refuge employees are asking visitors to stay at least 150 feet away from the birds and refrain from encouraging them to fly away.
After traveling long distances to get to the refuge, the majestic birds known for their willowy white plumage are often pushed to the brink of starvation and exhaustion. Any additional stress could push them too far and kill them, refuge deputy manager Frank Drauszewski said.
"The owls have to maintain as much energy as they can; and if people are going to disturb them, then they're going to have to use energy. That's basically the message," Drauszewski said.
A common occurrence is for unknowing visitors to coax snowy owls, often found in the Great Marsh, into the air to take a photo of them. But even that could harm the birds, Drauszewski said.
"Just leave them be," Drauszewski said.
Flushing out an owl for a photo could lead other birds, such as crows, to mob them, increasing the drain on already low energy reserves. Owls, and other winter visitors to the refuge, often travel far distances as they are pushed out of their natural habitats due to harsh weather, scarcity of food and other conditions.
In an attempt to educate visitors who ask about snowy owls, refuge staff have been handing out fliers warning people of the harm they could be causing the owls. According to the flier, regulations prohibit harassing or disturbing any wildlife in any way.
"Snowy owls, like many birds, have a flush distance, and they are merely trying to maintain that. They still remain stressed by your presence, they may still be dumping 'fight or flight hormones' into their system, even though they appear to be resting and undisturbed," the flier reads.