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Snowy owls make unusual winter appearance in Missouri
Kansas City, Mo. – Snowy owls, normally only northern residents, may be making southerly visits this winter. The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has received a few reports of snowy owls on the east and west sides of the state. On Dec. 6, Cass County Conservation Agent Phil Needham recovered an injured snowy owl near Raymore, south of Kansas City.
Snowy owls are fascinating to see, and more may be arriving as winter progresses. They are a large white raptor with a steadfast demeanor. Their normal haunts are the Arctic tundra and northern Canada. The winter migration of snowy owls this far south is usually attributed to population crashes of their prime food, which is lemmings, or a large population increase in young owls. They will also eat other small mammals, ptarmigan, and waterfowl. Among the most agile owls, they can catch small birds in flight, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“It’s the neatest thing I’ve ever held,” Needham said. “It has big snowy white feathers on the feet like snowshoes, feathers around the beak to keep that area where it breathes from freezing. It has that big white color and big golden eyes.”
A snowy owl was seen Dec. 2 at the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge near Mound City. The female owl sat atop the refuge headquarters building from sunrise to sunset before flying away. Another snowy owl was recently seen at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary north of St. Louis. When large numbers of the owls move south of their normal range, ornithologists refer to it as an irruption. Birders are now watching to see if a large irruption occurs as cold, icy winter weather settles in over the northern United States and Canada.
Citizens reported the injured snowy owl that was recovered on Dec. 6 in Cass County, east of Raymore. The owl had a badly injured wing and could not fly. Needham was able to catch it without problems. Staff at Lakeside Nature Center, in consultation with the Minnesota Raptor Center, determined the dislocated wing could not be repaired and euthanasia was unfortunately the best option for the owl. The cause of the injury is unknown.
Snowy owls are among the largest owls, they can have a four-foot wingspan. Adult males are usually mostly white, females and young owls can have black barring in the feathers as well as white. Harry Potter’s owl was a snowy owl.
Snowy owls appeared in western Missouri in noticeable numbers during the winters of 2011-2012 and 2017-2018. People are asked not to disturb snowy owls. They are likely already highly stressed from trying to find food in unfamiliar habitat. Studies on dead snowy owls recovered in the Midwest during earlier irruptions were emaciated, likely due to their difficulty capturing food.
For information about owl sightings and birding, visit eBird at https://ebird.org. To learn more about snowy owls and their visits to Missouri, visit https://short.mdc.mo.gov/ZSU.