Snowy owls make rare journey south to central US

11 January 2012 - 11:53
By Reuters
Young Snowy Owl on the tundra at Barrow Alaska. File Picture
Image: Floyd Davidson Young Snowy Owl on the tundra at Barrow Alaska. File Picture

Snowy owls are migrating south from their normal arctic habitats to Kansas, Oklahoma and other central states in unusually large numbers due to a shortage of food in the far north.     

The owl is drawing both serious bird-watchers and casual observers who may know best it as Hedwig, the companion of Harry Potter in books and movies.     

At Smithville Lake north of Kansas City over the weekend hundreds of people stopped at viewing points to watch three snowy owls along the shore or sitting on a marina roof.     

About 35 snowy owls have been sighted in Missouri and 75 in neighbouring Kansas, said ornithologist Mark Robbins of University of Kansas. Usually, one or two may visit the area every couple of years, he said.     

“Never in recorded history have there been this many in Missouri and Kansas,” Robbins said. Sightings have also been reported in other central US states as well as in Oregon, the northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.     

The owls have been seen as far south as southwest Missouri and northeast Oklahoma, said Jeff Cantrell, a naturalist for the Missouri Department of Conservation in Springfield, Missouri.     

“It’s a big, charismatic bird,” Robbins said.      

But many of the birds are also suffering, he said. They have come south because their favourite food — small rodents called lemmings — are in short supply in the Arctic, Robbins said.     

That comes on the heels of a year when they were abundant, which resulted a healthy population of snowy owls. They are searching for food, mostly rodents and small birds, Robbins said. He said climate change did not seem to be a factor in the migration.     

Some of the visiting owls are a third of their normal weight, Robbins said. Others, he said, have been killed by cars or overhead power lines — uncommon obstacles in the Arctic.     

The owls venturing into the lower 48 states are generally females and immature males, which have white heads, white bodies with brown spots, and yellow eyes.     

Smithville Mayor Brian Fullmer lives near Smithville Lake and saw a snowy owl on his neighbor’s roof. He said there are reportedly as least five owls in the area.     

“It’s been quite a thrill for the residents of Smithville to see them landing on our roofs and flying around the area,” Fullmer said.     

The owls have kept the community of 8425 people bustling with visitors. But the owls will probably head back the Arctic by March, Robbins said.     

“If I could keep the owls here year around, I would,” Fullmer said.