According to Project SNOWstorm, a collaborative that includes 40 bird researchers, bird banders, wildlife veterinarians, and pathologists, this winter will be a good year for viewing snowy owls in the Midwest, Northeast, and possibly the Pacific Northwest.
The 3- to 4-pound birds are easily recognized by their overall white appearance, with brown (males) or black (females) barring on most of their feathers. Their face, back of the neck, and upper breast are usually all white. They also have all-white feathers covering their feet and black beak, and yellow eyes with black pupils.
Beginning in mid-November, hundreds of the birds began migrating south from the tundra and are being seen throughout our latitudes in a phenomenon called an irruption.
The reasons for irruptions are not fully understood. Contrary to popular opinion, they don’t occur when the birds are starving and seeking prey, but in years when they have experienced bountiful reproductive success.
Reports indicate great hatching success on Quebec’s Ungava Peninsula in 2017, resulting in large numbers of birds available to make a flight south. While here, they prey upon rodents, gulls, ducks, and other water birds.
Because the species breeds in the absence of human contact, they are notoriously easy to approach. Their striking appearance and rarity, now believed to number only 30,000 worldwide, make them an attractive subject for photographers to seek whenever they appear locally.
However, when stalking crosses the line and becomes harassment, it can lead to unfavorable outcomes. Birds that have been flushed from their daytime perches have a higher risk of attack by larger raptors such as eagles and hawks or harassment by crows.
Snowy owls are also subject to collisions with automobiles and airplanes, electrocution on power lines, and accidental poisoning through rodenticides.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife recently shared Project SNOWstorm’s proper snowy owl etiquette, which includes:
- Keep your distance (at least 100 yards away)
- Respect private property
- Never feed the owls, ever!
Project SNOWstorm was co-founded in 2013 by David F. Brinker of the Maryland DNR, Scott Weidensaul, Research Director of the Ned Smith Center of Nature and Art in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, and Steven Huy of Frederick, Maryland.
They also started Project Owlnet in 1994, whose mission includes expanding migrant owl banding stations, the use of standardized, comparable netting protocols, and improved communication and coordination of owl migration research stations worldwide. It includes 120 owl migration collaborators from North America and elsewhere.
To better understand their daily and seasonal movements, they have tagged 40 Snowy owls in 10 states and hope to tag an additional 10 this winter. This will help gain knowledge of their habitat use and requirements.
They also hope to use this information to help keep them away from airports, where they endanger themselves and aircraft. See www.projectsnowstorm.org for further details about their project results.