Snowy owls descend on Northland in search of food
Call it the invasion of the snowies.
Snowy owls, normally residents of the tundra, are showing up in Minnesota and across the United States this winter.
Such an influx of owls is called an invasion or an irruption by birders. A map of snowy sightings at eBird.org indicates that the invasion stretches from Washington and Oregon as far east as New Brunswick, Canada.
"They could be anywhere in the Lower 48 states during these invasions," said Duluth birder Laura Erickson. "They want to hunker down and find a place to find mice all winter without having to wander aimlessly."
Many of the birds are hatch-year males, she said, meaning they were born on the Arctic tundra last spring. The snowy owl population is closely tied to cycles in the lemming population, she said. Some invasion years are the result of low lemming populations. Not this time.
"It has everything to do with lemmings having great production on the tundra," Erickson said. "In response, snowy owls produced lots of baby snowy owls. During the winter, all these baby snowy owls become territorial. Males are smaller than females. ... The ones that get crowded out first are the baby males."
Duluth raptor bander David Evans said he has observed seven or eight snowies in the Duluth-Superior area, about evenly split between males and females.
"(The invasion) is bigger than a lot of years, but not extraordinary by any stretch of the imagination," Evans said.
Still, birders across the country are excited by the number of snowy owls they're seeing.
Snowy owls are the heaviest of all U.S. owls, although great gray owls are taller. Snowies are about 23 inches tall with wingspans of 52 inches. They weigh about 4 pounds and fly with very slow wingbeats.
They are mostly white with flecks of gray. Their faces and the underside of their wings are always pure white. Snowy owls often are seen sitting on the ground or perched on fence posts. They rarely perch on trees.
Unfortunately, many seek out wide-open expanses similar to the tundra they left behind.
"There were some on the La Crosse (Wis.) airport that they had to chase off," Erickson said.
Another that had taken up residence at an airport in Hawaii was shot, she said.
Evans said he has found three snowy owls dead in the Duluth-Superior area this winter. One was struck by a vehicle on the Bong Bridge. Another was electrocuted, and the third appeared to have starved, Evans said.