Airborne visitors are traveling the skies over Missouri, and they’re not drones. And they’re not necessarily happy to be here.
Snowy owls are species from the Arctic tundra who’ve been spotted in the Show Me State and other locations in the Midwest in the last couple of months.
The Missouri Department of Conservation says they’re here because of a shortage of food in their natural habitat. Snowy owls normally feed on lemmings, ptarmingan and waterfowl.
They’re especially dependent on lemmings, which are thought to have been in short supply in the Arctic region. “This is an irruption likely tied to a drop in the lemming population in the Arctic this summer and fall,” said Mark Robbins, an ornithologist at the University of Kansas who also works with Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in Missouri.
The owls move south when lemming populations crash. Ken Buchholz, director for the Audubon Center at Riverlands, reports a male snowy owl was spotted at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary near the Mississippi River north of St. Louis on Nov. 9. A female appeared at the same location during the Thanksgiving holiday week.
A snowy owl was also spotted at Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge on the western side of the state in recent weeks. Overall, snowy owls have been seen across north Missouri, while a few have been spotted in the central and southern portions of the state.
According to site All About Birds, the snowy owl is one of the few birds that can get even non-birders to come out for a look. They’re among the largest owls with a wingspan greater than four feet.
Adult males are mostly white. Females and younger owls can have black coloring as well as white. In the series of J. K. Rowling fantasy novels, Harry Potter owned a snowy owl.
In Missouri, the birds prefer grasslands as habitat and typically eat rodents, rabbits, squirrels, waterfowl, and other birds. The state Conservation Department is urging people to minimize disturbance of the snowy owls, as they are already stressed due to food shortage.
According to the agency, the birds last appeared in Missouri and Kansas in noticeable numbers during the winter of 2011-2012. The majority of those where age could be determined were young birds.
The Conservation Department says during the previous irruption, experts found and examined some owls that died. Most owls examined were emaciated, suggesting they were having difficulty finding prey for food in unfamiliar habitat.