Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Snowies of the North

Unlike most birds of prey, I typically migrate to the north to my Michigan roots during the winter holidays to visit my family.  My most recent visit yielded a most unexpected and joyous surprise....I glimpsed my first wild Snowy Owl!

The Snowy Owl was perched high above the farm fields looking for prey. (Photo by Connie Bunke)
The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is a large, white owl with striking yellow eyes and a black beak.  Females are typically larger and have a brown bar pattern mixed with the white of their plumage.  Snowy males will also have the brown coloration to a lesser degree and will become more white as they age.

These majestic owls live solitary lives in the harsh arctic tundra, following the population movements of lemmings, a type of rodent.  Lemmings are the primary food source for Snowy Owls.  A single Snowy Owl can eat 1,500 to 1,600 lemmings in one year.

A lemming is a tasty meal for Snowy Owls (photo: The wikipedia files)
Sightings of Snowy Owls in the thumb of Michigan was once a really rare occurrence.  My mother could only recall seeing a Snowy Owl out in the countryside once in the thirty-five plus years she’s lived there.  Now, neighbors and friends talk as though seeing two or three snowies in a single day is a normal event!

My family and I took a drive one afternoon to go looking for the Snowy Owls.  In the span of an hour, we came across six snowies perched on telephone poles overlooking the fields.

We almost didn’t spot this fellow.  At a distance, he simply looked like an extension of the telephone pole (photo by Connie Bunke)
In recent years the explosion of Snowy Owls appearing across the northern United States is likely due to an unusually high abundance of lemming populations across Quebec, Canada, according to an article by the Cornell Lab of Orinthology BirdCast.  The high population levels of lemmings allow Snowy Owl pairs to rear larger clutches of chicks.  With the current Snowy Owl baby boom, we’re likely to have more frequent sightings of Snowy Owls for recurring years.

If you wish to learn more about Snowy Owls, come visit the World Bird Sanctuary to meet Tundra, the Snowy Owl, at our Education Department, as well as Ookpik and Crystal, our Snowy Owl pair, living on the sanctuary’s display line. 

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

No comments: