In the magical realm of Harry Potter, book and movie fans often call his pet snowy owl Hedwig one of their favorites. Long before this beautiful owl cast a spell on the literary front, snowy owls have bewitched those who have seen them in person.
Now, many people in the United States have the opportunity to see this powerful white owl from the north as the birds move south in record numbers. Snowy owls normally inhabit the high arctic region of North America and Eurasia.
These predatory birds’ southward movement is known as an irruption. Normally, they do not range much farther south than the Great Lakes region, but this year they have been sighted in the Northeast, the Carolinas and as far south as Florida and even Bermuda.
During December in Columbia, Missouri, Rodney Chappell was working outdoors when he caught a glimpse of something large and white.
“At first I thought it was a hawk,” the avid birder said. “But it flew nearby so I got a better look, and its white plumage really stood out.”
Chappell thinks he saw was a snowy owl, although the large, white owl with black markings is rarely seen in central Missouri. A single snowy owl in the region is big news to birders because Missouri is on the southern edge of their winter range.
“About once every four years, snowy owl sightings peak in Missouri, generally when populations of their prey, mainly lemmings, crash,” according to Brad Jacobs, a Missouri Department of Conservation wildlife ecologist.
“That’s when the birds travel south in search of food.”
During the irruption, only a small portion of snowy owls—usually immature individuals— are observed in the northern part of Missouri. This year, however, snowy owls have been observed at Smithville Lake in the Kansas City area, Kirksville, Trenton, and at Long Branch Lake in Macon.
According to Jacobs, there are more birds than normal, perhaps more than during the 2011-12 southward irruption, the last and largest recorded irruption when 69 snowy owls were reported in Missouri.
Snowy owls are similar in size to great horned owls, but are much darker than snowy owls. Most of the snowy owls visiting Missouri this winter are juveniles.
“Snowy owls that migrate this far south are unfamiliar with humans and cars. Some do not survive to make a return trip north,” Jacobs said. “They are used to a solitary life on the tundra with few humans, vehicles, and power lines. Here, they are hunting and living in unfamiliar conditions.”
Jacobs cautions motorists who see large, white birds standing on or near roadways to give these birds a brake, because snowy owls are not used to avoiding automobile traffic.
“Snowy owls are used to hunting in wide-open spaces and often land on highways,” Jacobs said. “Many of the birds will be focused on hunting and probably won’t be quick enough to get out of the way of a speeding car.”
Jacobs recommends not approaching or disturbing the birds. Treat these birds with respect and do not approach too closely. Snowy owls are best watched from a distance.
In Missouri, those who see a snowy owl, can report their sighting to Jacobs at (573)522-4115, ext. 3648.
Across the country, if you’re a citizen scientist lucky enough to see a snowy owl this winter, you can submit your sightings to the website www.eBird.org, a real-time online check list program for bird enthusiasts.
— Contributed by Joanie Straub, Missouri Department of Conservation, and eBird.org.
— Photo Courtesy Terri Nickerson, Missouri Department of Conservation