Snowy Owl

Photo courtesy of Mindy Billingham

The “polar vortex” that has been hitting the Midwest isn’t our only visitor from the arctic this winter. Harry Potter fans know it as “Hedwig” and bird watchers know it as the largest of Ohio owls… it’s the well-named Snowy Owl! This snow-white owl normally lives in the arctic tundra, but this winter, snowy owls have traveled to Ohio and beyond in record numbers. Some years we don’t see these owls in Ohio at all, or perhaps only a few along the coast of Lake Erie. This year, 134 confirmed snowy owls have been found across the buckeye state, and there are probably many more unseen.

Why so many owls this year?

We call this large influx of snowy owls an “irruption” and researchers have found irruptions to be linked to a small mammal of the tundra called a lemming. Never heard of a lemming? These rodents of the north are larger than a mouse, but smaller than a squirrel, measuring in at about 3-6” long. Summers of abundant lemmings increase the survival rate of the snowy owl chicks, and 2013 was definitely a “boom” year for lemmings! (Click on this link and scroll down to see lemmings at a snowy owl nest in a boom year.)

The snowy owls visiting Ohio this winter (and across the United States) are the young, first-year owls born this past summer of 2013. These young, inexperienced birds travel south to avoid competition for food in the harsh tundra winter. Standing at about 2 feet tall and soaring with a 4-5 foot wingspan, these arctic beauties capture the attention of wildlife fans across the United States and beyond. Images of snowy owls can even be found in cave paintings of Europe from 30,000 years ago.

In the arctic, snowy owls experience periods of 24 hours of sunlight in summer and 24 hours of darkness in winter. So instead of being nocturnal, they are equally adept at hunting during the day or night… Good news for both early birds and night owls who would like to see a snowy owl! Besides mammals, snowy owls prey on birds and waterfowl; tracking devices have found them hunting for sleeping ducks over open water. Their golden yellow eyes provide telescopic vision, which means these far-sighted animals have trouble seeing their young up-close in the nest. Take a look around their beak, and you’ll notice whiskers, which are useful when feeling around to drop food in the mouths of young snowy owls.

How and where to find a snowy owl

At home in the tundra, snowy owls prefer wide, open expanses of grassland. Here in Ohio, they are found in farm fields, wetlands, and at lakes and reservoirs. You could spot a snowy owl on a walk with your dog or on your commute! If you are near open fields, look for white plastic grocery bags… it could be an owl resting or looking for a snack. These owls can be found on the ground, or perched up high, on water towers and power lines. In Central Ohio, they’ve been spotted on a water tower in Worthington and at Buckeye Lake. There could be one near you!

Sharing the friendly skies

Snowy owls are often found sharing the skies with a much larger “bird”… or rather, plane! Airports offer large, flat open space that appears very similar to the grasslands of the tundra. There are also plenty of rodents at airports. My own first snowy owl sighting was at Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront airport.

Unfortunately low-flying snowy owls don’t mix with take-offs and landings. In December 2013, snowy owl collisions with aircraft made headlines as John F. Kennedy airport officials decided to shoot the owls for safety purposes. After a few owl deaths, the news sparked a petition, which successfully changed the strategy from killing to a catch-and-release program, as has been done at Boston airports for years. Kudos to New York and New Jersey’s Port Authority for changing their practice in just a few days, as well as to those citizens who signed and sent the petition so quickly.

Make a difference in the life of a snowy owl

We can all make a difference in the lives of wildlife all around us. If you are lucky enough to see one of these gorgeous creatures before they fly back home this spring, consider reporting your observation, as it could help further our understanding of these birds. Share your observations at eBird, an online bird checklist and research database, or with Jim McCormac of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Or, if you are interested in helping fund snowy owl research, Project SNOWstorm has begun keeping track of these animals with GPS transmitters.

Before you go, you must see how one lucky snowy owl avoided death between the grill of a GMC truck! Click here for the post and pictures on Jim McCormac’s blog, “Ohio Birds and Biodiversity.” — Colleen Sharkey

Colleen Sharkey has been an informal educator and nature enthusiast for 10+ years. She lives in Columbus, near a couple of beautiful ravines that offer habitat to everything from nesting barred owls and red foxes to hemlock trees and migrating warblers. Colleen is currently an environmental educator for BrightPath Active Learning in Westerville and a Naturalist with Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks.