January 29, 2012

Snowy Owl Sightings Reported As Far South As Oklahoma

Thousands of snowy owls have made the journey from the Arctic into the contiguous 48 U.S. states this winter, with sightings having been reported in Idaho, Montana, Missouri, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and New York.

Denver Holt, head of the Owl Research Institute in Montana, told Laura Zuckerman of Reuters that the mass migration into the south is "unbelievable" and "the most significant wildlife event in decades."

"A certain number of the iconic owls fly south from their Arctic breeding grounds each winter but rarely do so many venture so far away even amid large-scale, periodic southern migrations known as irruptions," Zuckerman said, adding that birdwatchers had spotted the owls "from coast to coast, feeding in farmlands in Idaho, roosting on rooftops in Montana, gliding over golf courses in Missouri and soaring over shorelines in Massachusetts."

On Saturday, STLouisToday.com's Susan Weich reported that more than 50 of them had been spotted in Missouri this month, compared to a previous record of just 13.

Henry Blakes of KFYR-TV in Bismarck, North Dakota said Friday that "dozens" of them had been spotted in that state, and that the owls had been observed as far south as Oklahoma this year.

In addition, according to the Associated Press (AP), bird watchers had seen at least three of snowy owls at the Syracuse Hancock Airport in New York.

"Holt and other owl experts say the phenomenon is likely linked to lemmings, a rodent that accounts for 90 percent of the diet of snowy owls during breeding months that stretch from May into September. The largely nocturnal birds also prey on a host of other animals, from voles to geese," Zuckerman said.

"An especially plentiful supply of lemmings last season likely led to a population boom among owls that resulted in each breeding pair hatching as many as seven offspring," she added, noting that Holt claims that a typical clutch of the species is just one or two owls and that the increased competition for food "may have then driven mostly younger, male owls much farther south than normal."

While Blakes points out that it is illegal to hunt, kill or capture snowy owls under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Reuters writes that the migration has "brought birders flocking from Texas, Arizona and Utah to the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, pouring tourist dollars into local economies and crowding parks and wildlife areas. The irruption has triggered widespread public fascination that appears to span ages and interests."


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