Considered one of the most significant wildlife events in decades, the iconic snowy owl of Arctic fame is winging it south in a mass migration to the lower 48 states. A handful of snowy owls do find their way to the lower 48 every year during the winter, but never in the thousands like we are witnessing this year.
Snowy owls, which stand two feet tall and have a wingspan of five feet with snow white plumage, have been spotted coast to coast this year from shorelines in Massachusetts to farmlands in Idaho, rooftops in Montana, golf courses in Missouri, at an airport in Hawaii and at a wildlife refuge in Washington. “What we are seeing — it’s unbelievable,” said Denver Holt, head of the Owl Research Institute in Montana.
The surge of snowy owl sightings in the lower 48 has been a boon for birders — and the local communities where the birds are spotted. ”For the last couple months, every other visitor asks if we’ve seen a snowy owl today,” said Frances Tanaka, a volunteer for the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Olympia, Washington.
However, while tourist dollars are flying into the pockets of locals where owls have been spotted, some of the birds are in really poor condition. One emaciated owl dropped dead in a farmer’s Wisconsin field. Fortunately, most of the owls seem to be thriving.
This unusual migration is likely linked to lemmings, a small fuzzy rodent that is infamously known for catapulting itself off high cliffs. Lemmings account for about 90 percent of the snowy owl diet during the breeding months of May through September. Last year, the lemming population exploded and therefore there was plenty of food for the owls, which resulted in the owls having their own population boom. The typical clutch of the snowy owl is one or two eggs, while this year a breeding pair was blessed with as many as seven offspring. Obviously, this created greater competition for resources as the chicks matured. Thus, it is hypothesized that the younger birds, primarily males, were driven farther south than usual.
Other experts are pointing an accusing finger at climate change.
However, the reality is, even the bird experts do not know exactly why so many of the snow white owls have moved south. ”There’s a lot of speculation…we really don’t know,” Holt said.