The Elusive Snowy Owl

January 29, 2019
HGW snowy owl
Henry Walters

Native to the Arctic regions, we do not see the stunning snowy owl often (Harry Potter movies, aside). But once in a while this rare visitor from the tundra will migrate further south.

Where Snowy Owls Migrate

Snowy owls are an irruptive species, meaning that where they migration depends on their varying food supply from year to year. The owl’s movements seem to be tied to the availability of two rodents, the brown and arctic lemmings, sweet, pocket-sized, gerbilly creatures whose populations soar and plummet more wildly than the stock market.

A summer with lots of lemmings means plenty of food for young owls; that, in turn, means lots of owls survive to adulthood. In winter, those young owls must seek their fortune elsewhere in order to survive, so they go south, looking for food in warmer climes. 

Photographs by Sharon Harvell

Great Snowy Owl Invasion of 2013–14

During the rare times that snowy owls reach our relatively tropical latitudes, they often find fame as well. Back in winter of 2013–2014, snowy owls started showing up in the hundreds from Oregon to Louisiana, New England to Bermuda. They’re used to a treeless arctic tundra, so people spotted them along shorelines of oceans and also on agricultural fields and airport lands—often right on the ground. For most snowy owls, this was their first visit to Civilization, and as a result, they often act surprisingly “tame” around their human admirers. As you can see from these photos, they seem almost to play to the camera.

Photograph by Aiden Moser

Our fascination is warranted. If this owl is a visitor from a harsher, unintelligible world, then why is it dressed up as a cuddly child’s toy? The strange gaze coming at you out of those narrowed eye-slits, bright yellow around coal-black centers, manages to be both comically nearsighted and frighteningly alien. This, you think, is a bird that’s not afraid of man nor beast. Its beak is hardly visible behind its muffling facial feathers, yet it yawns to reveal a revolting, amoxicillin-pink mouth and tongue. Enormous feet, its main weaponry, are covered in thick feathers: danger walks around in white slippers.

Photograph by Aiden Moser

But why did the snowy owls flight south? It turns out, many owls actually fly north in the winter to hunt the ducks which collect in open pools between banks of Arctic ice. The warming climate may be making such hunting impossible, forcing many more snowies southward to find food in our backyards. What’s a feast for photographers this winter may spell eventual famine for these owls. Is this year’s irruption the first of many, and if so, how long can the fragile tundra support the bird’s population? 

Photograph by Andre Moraes

If you hear about a snowy owl appearance, drop everything! Harry Potter’s bird is a rare and magical sight indeed.

Love owls? Here are more fascinating owl facts.

About This Blog

Field Notes From the Woods, written by Henry Walters, shares observations and ruminations on plants, wildlife, weather, and other facets of nature. Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer’s Almanac.