An airborne visitor from the north continues to capture the imagination of Missourians. Snowy Owls are a 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.
Bird specialist Sarah Kendrick with the Missouri Department of Conservation says a shortage of food has led to a sudden increase in the Snowy Owl population, which is referred to as an irruption.
“It’s believed that it’s likely a shortage of lemmings, which is a small mammal that’s their main food source up north,” said Kendrick. “In years where there are fewer lemmings for them to eat, usually young owls have to venture farther south to look for food for them to eat.”
Snowy Owls are one the few species that can handle the extreme Arctic climate. Their normal habitat stretches from northern Alaska, through the Hudson Bay, over to Greenland.
Kendrick says the birds have not migrated south in flocks, but instead have made the journey as individuals in search of a better food supply.
Ken Buchholz, director for the Audubon Center at Riverlands near St. Louis, reported that a male snowy owl was spotted at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary near the Mississippi River on Nov. 9. A female appeared at the same location during the Thanksgiving holiday week and was continually spotted there until shortly before Christmas.
A more recent sighting of a Snowy Owl occurred on December 29th near the town of Cairo, north of mid-Missouri’s Moberly. The species was also spotted at Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge on the western side of the state in recent weeks.
Overall, the birds have been seen across north Missouri, while a few have been spotted in the central and southern portions of the state.
Buchholz says people to tend remember exactly where and when they’ve seen Snowy Owls because the birds are so visually striking.
“It’s like the Bald Eagle, it’s just not as common,” said Buchholz. “Not only is it that charismatic of a species, but if you’re in the lower 48 (states) you may not see it that often, especially as far south as Missouri. It might be every five years you see one in our state.”
An irruption of Snowy Owls into the Midwestern U.S. seems to have taken place over roughly five-year intervals.
Snowy Owls, and owls in general, are part of a group of predatory birds, known as raptors, that hunt and feed on rodents and other small animals.
Kendrick with the Conservation Department says they have especially sharp eye sight and can often be seen up high in open spaces looking for feeding opportunities.
“They hunt out in usually open field areas, so you won’t see them a lot in the woods,” Kendrick said. “They perch up high, looking for prey on the ground that they can fly down to and capture. Sometimes you see them on the ground though, a lot, too.”
According to Buchholz with the Audubon Center at Riverlands, the Snowy Owls aren’t having trouble finding food, but could become endangered when they position themselves near busy thoroughfares.
“The owl that was here on two occasions was right on the side of a busy roadway,” Buchholz said. “We’re not sure why they do that, but they do it. And so that’s probably their greatest threat when they do these occasional migrations this far south.”
The birds have become somewhat of a media sensation in Missouri, having garnered high-profile coverage from several outlets. Kendrick cautions that people caught up in the excitement who are seeking a glimpse of a Snowy Owl should avoid getting to close to one.
“Some of these birds are already stressed and looking for food, so I would just make sure that they maintain their distance by a few hundred feet,” Kendrick said. Don’t approach them. That makes them flush and fly off, and expend extra energy that they otherwise wouldn’t have to.”