A Storm of Snowy Owls

Jim Wright/NJMC

Rare Bird Alert hotlines are ringing off the hook with reports of snowy owls. Could this infusion of owls mean our wintry neighbor from the North is suffering from a lean lemming year in the Arctic? Not this time, reports The Associated Press. In fact, some scientists say it could be exactly the opposite case. Lemmings—the snowy owl’s meal of choice—appear to be experiencing a population boom, rather than a bust, setting up the owls of Harry Potter fame for a record winter.

Here’s how the theory goes: When lemming numbers rise, well-fed snowy owls rear more young. Such a surge of owls spurs competition among males trying to stake out cold-weather territories. Young males beaten by their elders in turf battles leave their Arctic homes, winging south in search of new winter homes stocked with lemming-like food—mice, rabbits, squirrels, voles.

More often a jump in snowy owl spottings signals that northern lemming populations have gone bust—a natural cycle that occurs every three to five years—forcing the wise birds to search for food beyond their usual comfort zones.

Boom or bust, we witness a flurry of snowies stretching beyond their southern wintering range—including some places where they have seldom been seen before. Rarely are these ghosts of the Far North spotted lower than northern Ohio. Yet, this year they are popping up in places like Virginia and Kansas. “In Tennessee, birders armed with spotting scopes and telephoto lenses scrambled from as far away as Georgia and Alabama to see the first snowy owl reported in that state in 22 years,” writes The AP’s Mary Esch.

No matter their reason for leaving the Arctic, snowy owls nudged from northern territories almost always arrive at their southern destinations stressed and starving. If all goes well, they quickly locate quiet accommodations with plentiful grub and a comfortable place for some shut-eye. But too often such avian superstars encounter aggressive paparazzi birders and noisy neighbors—not to mention electric power lines, planes, trains, and automobiles.

Whether they are chased by adoring onlookers or collide with oncoming traffic, some of the visiting owls tragically wind up vulture bait. 

Many members of the birding and science community are calling for the throngs of owl spectators to ease up, and offer owls some good ol’ southern hospitality by adhering to some proper owl etiquette.

Mind Your Manners:
If you’re on the prowl to see some owls, there are some basic rules of conduct that need to be followed for the birds’ sake, and yours:
1. Keep a respectful distance between you and the owl. If the bird is looking at you, it feels threatened. Move away slowly.

2. If you find a nest or a roost site, only visit infrequently. Keep the location a secret to protect the owl from being mobbed by onlookers.

3. Do not disturb a sleeping owl, or chase it to get a better view or a photograph. This can be extremely harmful to owls, many of which are already stressed from their arduous journeys to unknown territories.

4. Observe warning signs, and do not trespass on private property.

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