The winter of 2013-2014 has already been a record-breaking year for snowy owl sightings in the United States, but this winter has not seen a single snowy owl in Utah. With these great Arctic owls appearing in droves throughout New England and the Great Lakes, with sightings as far south as Florida, Washington DC, and even Bermuda in the past few months, why aren't snowy owls arriving in Utah?
Why Snowy Owls Irrupt
This unusual southward migration of snowy owls is called an irruption, and it's an unpredictable type of seasonal movement. The three most likely factors causing snowy owls to head much further south than typical are…
- Population: The 2013 breeding season may have been very productive, with a greater number of young owls surviving. Many owls that have been sighted this winter are heavily barred on the back and wings, which is an indication of their youth.
- Food: With a greater than normal population of snowy owls, food sources of their preferred lemmings and other rodents are stretched thin, and the owls need to venture well beyond their typical range to find sufficient prey.
- Weather: While these birds are equipped to handle harsh winters, the greater than normal number of severe storms can impact their hunting ability, and they may be traveling further south in search of milder weather for easier hunting.
The snowy owl population stretches across the Arctic, but conditions in different parts of their habitat are not identical. Western North America is having a much milder winter than the eastern portion of the continent, so a larger number of western owls may be more comfortable staying within their traditional range because hunting is not as difficult. The lemming population may be higher in the west, and the breeding season may have varied just enough that there is no need for young western birds to seek territory further south.
Utah's Geography and Snowy Owls
Utah may have snow, but that doesn't mean it's an ideal habitat for snowy owls. These birds prefer relatively flat, open tundra where their prey can thrive, and their prey needs seeds and other food to establish healthy populations. In Utah, the widest, open areas are desert regions that cannot support appropriate prey populations for snowy owls, and where prey would be more abundant – in mountain habitats or foothills – the landscape is too forested or craggy for the owls to be comfortable. The various mountain chains that give Utah its exceptional skiing are the exact feature discouraging snowy owls from calling the state home.
Does that mean there are never snowy owls in Utah? Of course not! There have been several confirmed sightings in the past several years, including one snowy owl at Antelope Island State Park in 2011, another near Rich in the northeastern corner of the state also in 2011, and a very popular flurry of snowy sightings throughout Cache County in early 2013.
Utah birders should continue to keep a sharp eye out for these raptors – learn how to identify snowy owls and visit appropriate habitats in the northern parts of the state, and you never know when that unusual white lump in the field or on the fence post may turn out to be the next snowy sighting.