More snowy owls flying south in search of food

Thursday, January 9, 2014 | 6:53 p.m. CST; updated 12:22 a.m. CST, Friday, January 10, 2014
Snowy owls are rare in Missouri. This snowy owl was observed at Smithville Lake near Kansas City in December.

COLUMBIA — At least 10 sightings of snowy owls have been confirmed in Missouri, said Brad Jacobs, wildlife ecologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Hedwig, a pet snowy owl in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, is an icon of the species. Mid-Missouri residents now have a better chance of seeing a snowy owl in their own neighborhoods, but take caution: It might not be as eager to carry your letters as Hedwig would be.

What to do if you see a snowy owl:

If you spy a live snowy owl, please call:

  • Brad Jacobs at 522-4115

If you find a dead snowy owl, please call either:

  • Adam Doerhoff at 239-6541
  • Sean Ernst at 815-7901

If you are not in Boone County:

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An eruption of an irruption

When numbers of the snowy owl's mouse-like prey, lemmings, run low the owls travel south in search of new food sources. This migration is called an irruption, according to a news release from the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"Think of sugar being out at the grocery store you always go to: You may have to go to another store that is farther away," Boone County conservation agent Adam Doerhoff said in an email. Missouri "is one of those places we see a few of these owls when that happens."

This winter snowy owls are appearing sooner, further south and in greater numbers than in previous years. Snowy owls typically live in high arctic regions of North America and Eurasia, but the owls' southern-most winter range can stretch through the Midwest.

The state may be on target to top the most recent and largest irruption in the winter of 2011-12, according to the release.

How to spot one

The first sign of a snowy owl is the bird's size. Snowy owls can be up to 20 inches tall with a 4.5-foot-long wingspan, said MU School of Natural Resources Director Mark Ryan. Male snowy owls are predominantly white while females have darker speckling on their wings and back, but all will look distinctly white from a distance.

Snowy owls have rounded heads because they do not have ear tufts. John Faaborg, MU professor of Biological Science and Fisheries and Wildlife, said the barred owl doesn't have tufts either, but isn't white enough to be easily mistaken for a snowy owl.

If you hope to find a snowy by listening for unfamiliar hooting, you might be out of luck.

"Hooting is generally related to territory, nesting and mating, which snowy owls aren't really doing down here," Faaborg said. "They're pretty quiet."

Since snowy owls' natural habitat is wide-open tundra, the owls can be found most often in open fields and near airports. Faaborg said they don't really require trees.

"Keep an eye out though," Faaborg said. "They like to sit on top of telephone poles."

Not the safest journey

Even though the phenomenon is not a new or mysterious one, snowy owls this far south are decidedly out of their comfort zones. Jacobs encourages motorists to be especially wary of birds landing near the highway or other open spaces.

"Most of the owls are no more than eight months old, and have probably never seen a human or a car before," Jacobs said. "They're kinda fearless."

Not only can the owls be easily hit by cars and trucks, they are also outside of their typical hunting conditions. In Missouri, the owls tend to hunt mice and voles but they are unfamiliar with the prey's behavior and aren't always successful. 

"They can't really figure it out," Jacobs said.

Faaborg said many owls die before they are able to return north again. 

"A few, maybe three, years ago, we were actually able to catch [a snowy owl]," Faaborg said. "They took it into the vet school, and it was emaciated."

The birds should be admired from afar rather than approached or disturbed.

Snowy owl sightings should be reported to either Jacobs or a local Conservation agent, and birders can log their sightings on the Audubon Society website.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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