Kansas City, Mo. – Missouri birders are getting a winter treat. Snowy owls are being spotted in the state and throughout the Midwest. But the visit from this owl species from the Arctic is not good news for the birds, as likely a food shortage in their natural habitat has pushed them farther south than usual, experts say.
“This is an irruption likely tied to a drop in the lemming population in the Arctic this summer and fall,” said Mark Robbins, an ornithologist at the University of Kansas who also works with Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in Missouri.
The maps on eBird, a cooperative online effort by birders and researchers to track sightings for all species, shows several snowy owls have been seen across north Missouri and a few in central and southern Missouri. Snowy owls are among the largest owls and named for their white coloration. Adult males are mostly white. Females and younger owls can have black barring as well as white. Snowy owls can have wingspans topping four feet. Harry Potter’s owl was a snowy owl.
A male snowy owl arrived at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary near the Mississippi River north of St. Louis on Nov. 9, said Ken Buchholz, director for the Audubon Center at Riverlands. A female appeared during the Thanksgiving holiday week. A snowy owl was spotted at Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge on the western side of the state in recent weeks.
Snowy owls last appeared in Missouri and Kansas in noticeable numbers during the winter of 2011-2012. The majority of those where age could be determined were young birds, according to a scientific paper on the irruption that Robbins helped compile. In the 2011-2012 irruption, experts found and examined some owls that died. Most owls examined were emaciated, suggesting they were having difficulty finding prey for food in unfamiliar habitat.
People are urged to minimize disturbance of the snowy owls, as they are already stressed due to food shortage in their normal winter habitat.
These tundra dwellers normally feed on lemmings, ptarmingan, and waterfowl. They especially rely on lemmings. When lemming populations are high, snowy owl populations rise. The owls move south when lemming populations crash. In Missouri, they prefer grasslands as habitat and may eat rodents, rabbits, squirrels, waterfowl, and other birds.
For information about owl sightings and birding, visit eBird at http://ebird.org.
To learn more about snowy owls and their visits to Missouri, visit https://short.mdc.mo.gov/ZSU.