Why snowy owls come south is small mystery

  • By Mike Benbow Special to The Herald
  • Saturday, January 26, 2013 4:45pm
  • Life

Snowy owls come with a lot of misinformation, according to experts.

For one thing, nobody’s certain what makes these Arctic denizens come to the lower 48 states or why they would pick Washington over, say, Wyoming or Wisconsin.

“It’s a mystery what makes them come down,” said Bud Anderson of the Falcon Research Group in northwest Washington. “Nobody really knows.”

One thing for certain is that the owls, which go south for the winter only sporadically in what’s called an irruption, are back again this year after a big-time visit last year.

The basic assumption is that snowy owls, the largest owl in North America, leave their Arctic homes when there aren’t enough lemmings, their main food source, for the number of owls.

Snowy owls eat three to five lemmings a day.

They often come back to the lower 48 the year following an irruption in what’s called an echo, the assumption being the owls like what they ate the year before and are continuing to see slim pickings at home.

But Anderson said he talked recently with Denver Holt of the Owl Research Institute in Montana, who has studied snowy owls for 20 years in Barrow, Alaska. “He said he doesn’t know (about the southern migration) this year because in Barrow, everything is fine so far.”

As for an echo effect, Anderson said some birds seem to like migrating to specific locations and others seem to wander. He said that a few years ago, they tagged 12 snowy owls in northwest Washington. The next year, they found one of the dozen that had been tagged. The year after that, they found another.

“Isn’t it wonderful that in 2013 there still are some things that we don’t know about birds of prey?” he said.

At any rate, the magnificent birds are back in Washington this year, looking for rodents, ducks, shore birds, and even short-eared owls for dinner in salt marshes and farm fields. While Anderson said it’s just a hunch, he thinks there may be more owls in Washington state this year than last.

Like other owls, they’re mostly nocturnal, but Anderson said they are more likely to feed during the daytime. They may be more used to daytime meals because of the long periods of daylight during summers in the Arctic.

“They predominantly hunt at night or in late dusk,” Anderson said. “They become these hunting machines at dusk.”

Owls have been seen in the Stillaguamish River estuary in Snohomish County since November. They will likely leave in February or March.

In addition to the marsh environments, the great white owls, made popular by the character Hedwig in the Harry Potter series, have been showing up in yards and on roofs throughout Western Washington.

Anderson said one was found last year at the Honolulu airport, saying it likely arrived there on a ship.

He said that if people do see the owls, they should enjoy them at a distance and try not to disturb them.

Owl facts

Color: Mostly white with black bars and spots, black talons and short black beaks.

Eyes: Golden to yellow.

Feet: Covered with feathers to shield them from the cold.

Wingspan: 4 to 5 feet.

Weight: 4 to 6.6 pounds.

Lifespan: 9.5 years in the wild.

Learn more

See them: One of the few public places to see snowy owls is Boundary Bay. Here’s how to get there: Drive on I-5 north across the border into Canada (remember to bring a passport or enhanced driver’s license). I-5 turns into Highway 99. Take the Ladner Trunk Road exit and head west. Turn left on 72nd Street and drive until the end of the road. Park and head to your right onto a dike. For more information on Boundary Bay, go to tinyurl.com/cz2ejv8.

Snowy owl books: Denver Holt of the owl institute is co-author of “Snowy Owls: Whoo are They.” He has studied the owls in Alaska since the late ’90s.

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