Snowy owls – normally a species confined to the Arctic tundra – have been in the news for weeks as they've been seen much further south than their typical range. Sightings have been recorded heavily around the Great Lakes and in the northeast, and as far south as Arkansas, Tennessee, and even Florida. But how much do you know about these great white raptors?
The snowy owl (Bubo scandiaca) is a member of the Strigidae bird family, a classification that includes all owls except barn owls (which are in the Tytonidae family). They range from 24-26 inches long and have a wingspan stretching from 55-65 inches, but they only weigh 3-7 pounds. Males and females look different, with males being almost completely pure white with just a few dark speckles. Females are much more heavily marked and show heavy dark barring on the top of the head, the back, wings, and abdomen, but they have a plain white bib that covers the face, throat, and upper chest. Young birds look more like females, but young males gradually grow lighter and plainer as they age. Both genders have piercing yellow eyes.
Snowy owls are carnivores that eat small mammals, usually lemmings, voles, mice, gophers, rats and similar animals. They can be just as active hunting during the day as they can at night, and they will often perch on rocks, posts, or roofs to give them a slightly elevated view of their hunting grounds.
In the wild, snowy owls live for 9-10 years. The birds being seen in unusual places this winter are mainly juvenile birds and may be forced south because of a food shortage in their native range, or the population of snowy owls has grown so large that there isn't enough food to support all of them in the same space. These birds are looking for better food sources temporarily, but will retreat to the north later in the season. This is called an irruption, and these types of irregular migrations are unpredictable from one year to the next. The most recent previous irruption of snowy owls was during the winter of 2011-2012.
Snowy owls are popular birds in literature, art, and legends, and one of the most famous is Harry Potter's faithful companion, Hedwig. Because of this winter's irruption, many birders and bird-lovers will have the chance to see snowy owls in person, but take the opportunity now – before you know it, these birds will disappear back to their isolated range and there's no telling when they may return.