Unusual number of snowy owls venture to Missouri for food

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 | 6:46 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — When Bill Mees got the call from his friend Bill Clark on Dec. 23 saying that a snowy owl had been spotted along Interstate 70, the birding enthusiast didn't hesitate. He hopped into his car and drove to the site right away.

"When I arrived there, I saw something white on the side of a hill next to Highway I-70," Mees said. "It looked like a plastic bag, 'cause these bags fly around easily. But it turned out that it was the bird."

Snowy owls

Snowy Owl

Scientific name: Nyctea scandiaca

Color: White (Males are generally whiter than females.)

Size: 20 to 28 inches

Wingspan: 4.2 to 4.8 feet

Weight: 3.5 to 6.5 pounds

Normal Habitat: Arctic tundra

Prey: Mainly lemmings; also rabbits, birds and fish

Lifespan: 9.5 years in the wild; 35 years in captivity

Source: National Geographic website

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Mees, a member of the Columbia Audubon Society, was among several local birders who got a chance to spot the bird.

"I've never seen a snowy owl before, just pictures," he said. He sat in his car and looked at the owl through his binoculars from several hundred feet away.

Mees isn't the only birder to enjoy a rare sighting of the snowy owls in Missouri. They've been spotted all over the United States this year, far south of their normal Arctic tundra habitat.

The reason behind the feathered visitors' invasion appears to be a lack of food in the Arctic, said Mark Robbins, a collection manager of ornithology at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute. 

"It clearly indicated that the living population of lemmings crashed in the Arctic tundra this year," Robbins said of the influx of birds to the south.

Lemmings, which are small rodents with long fur and short tails, are the primary food for snowy owls in the tundra. Snowy owls can gulp down several whole lemmings per day. The birds have rapid digestive systems and regurgitate the undigestable bones and fur. 

The owls tend to lay more eggs when they have plenty of food.

Robbins speculates that an abundance of lemmings in the tundra over the past two years produced good breeding seasons for snowy owls. But lemming populations declined throughout the summer and fall. Because young owls don't have enough experience to find enough food for themselves, many head south.

The snowy owl that Mees spied was at the eastbound entrance ramp at the Lake of the Woods Road and Interstate 70 interchange, according to an article that Clark wrote for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Eventually, workers at the Raptor Rehabilitation Center at MU's College of Veterinary Medicine were called to capture the malnourished bird. Although they tried to save it, the owl died from malnutrition.

The bird is now in a freezer at the Raptor Rehabilitation Center, which intends to send it to a taxidermist then find an educational use for it.

Snowy owls are about the same size as barred owls and considerably larger than red-tailed hawks, both of which are common birds of prey in Missouri.

Robbins said he has been monitoring the snowy owls' movements in Missouri and Kansas this winter. To date, he said, at least 35 snowy owls have been spotted in Missouri.

"This is a very unusual year," Robbins said. "On average, one or two owls are spotted in Missouri every two years. Thirty-five — that's never historically happened before."

Robbins said one snowy owl was sighted as far south as Jasper County, near Joplin. Tim Smith, an ombudsman for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said there also have been unverified reports of the birds in the Bootheel and in Ozark County.

The owls' arrival in Missouri has been an excellent opportunity for avid birders. Edge Wade, field trip coordinator for the Columbia Audubon Society, said dozens of birders across Missouri have visited Smithville Lake north of Kansas City to look for the owls.

The Audubon Society of Missouri had an email listserv for birders interested in spotting the owls.

"Birders also went to other places to find the owls, but Smithville is the easiest to find over a long period of time," Wade said. "It has been going on for weeks."

There is a downside, though. The owls are having a hard time surviving so far south of their normal range.

Brad Jacobs, a wildlife ecologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said one snowy owl was electrocuted when it sat on a power pole near Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Livingston County.

The birds have never been exposed to humans or buildings, nor are they familiar with automobiles and highways, so it is also easy for them to get hit by cars.

"If you see something big and white on the road, please slow down, it might be a snowy owl," Jacobs said. "These birds will not fly away. They just sit there and get run over."

Wade said most of the birds will die because they're out of their range or normal habitat. "They're not used to the hunting area here and have to compete with resident owls and hawks."

"A large percent of them will not make it back," Robbins said. "If the birds do survive, they will probably go back home from late February to March."

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