January-February 2018

2017-18 Snowy Owl Irruption

Matt Wetrich, Carroll County Conservation, and Linette Bernard, Feathers & Ink

Have you ever found yourself jaw-dropped and emotionally-stirred at the mere sight of a creature you may have only seen in a movie? Being in the presence of a snowy owl in real life tends to move the emotions in a cinematically unique way. Even if they aren’t delivering your mail (Yes, a Harry Potter reference!), they can deliver a moment you’ll never forget for the rest of your life. If owls are your thing, and if you don’t mind having the golden yellow lasers of their fierce stare pierce right through your soul, you are in luck. Right now, Iowa is experiencing what is known as an “irruption” of these feathered ghosts of the tundra.

Irruption refers to an increase in a population of an animal outside its normal range. It is believed that the driving force behind this current irruption event is an increase in the owls’ food: lemmings - a small arctic rodent similar to a vole. Every five years or so the lemming population goes through a boom cycle. This abundance of food triggers the owls to have more babies.

Upon their growing up, there is an overabundance of new snowy owls, more than the winter hunting grounds can sustain. The young owls, not having ownership of any local hunting grounds, head south in search of enough sustenance to get them through the winter.

The majority of owls we are currently seeing were born this year, told by the abundance of streaking on their otherwise snow-white feathers. Adult males are nearly entirely white, with adult females having some streaking in order to help hide them while at their ground nest in the arctic. The picture left shows a juvenile female on the left and an adult male on the right. The adult male is Borealis, education snowy owl at SOAR - Saving Our Avian Resources.

A common misbelief is that the owls are starving and head south in search of food. Banding studies show that most of the owls moving south are in reasonably good health at the start of their journey.

However, upon arrival to Iowa, it seems that life is not quite as peachy as the owls might have hoped. Harvested agricultural fields and concrete don’t offer up much of a buffet. Roadside ditches do, however, host rodents, and the owls - and other raptors - end up figuring this out. Unfortunately, this means navigating moving automobiles to catch a meal; growing up in the arctic does not teach one how to navigate automobiles. Through the end of December 2017, we know of at least 27 dead snowy owls and ten more in the care of wildlife rehabilitators in the state, most of which came via car strike or starvation. This underscores the need of quality habitat in our state, particularly prairie and land enrolled in CRP.

Check out this short YouTube video of a snowy owl released from rehabilitation 19 December 2017. Thanks to Glenda Franks, Dr. Dirks, and SOAR staff for the combined effort to get this snowy owl released!

The average winter season (late October through early March) yields only a small handful of snowy owl reports in Iowa, typically less than 10. More than 100 snowy owl sightings have been reported from late October through 22 December 2017. It’s difficult to track reports and know if each sighting is a unique owl or one that has been observed by another. (See below for info on a map of records.)

This video was live at the end of November and covers this winter's snowy owl irruption. The video features Matt Wetrich, Carroll County Conservation, and SOAR Executive Director Kay Neumann.

Where to look for a snowy? Perched just about anywhere BUT a tree. Not to say they NEVER sit in trees, but it is very rare. (They don’t see trees in the arctic!) They can be seen sitting on road signs, fence posts, top of utility poles, rock piles, on top of buildings, and commonly straight on the ground.

If you see a snowy owl…

    • Give it plenty of space. Do not approach the owl and cause it to fly. Causing unwarranted flying costs the owl valuable calories it may not have otherwise spent.

    • Report it to Carroll County Naturalist, Matt Wetrich via email at matt@carrollcountyiowa.org or at the office at Swan Lake State Park at (712) 792-4614. Matt is keeping a state-wide map of sightings to help birders and scientist have a visual of this widespread irruption. See below. This map is also available on the Iowa Ornithologists Union website!

Speaking of taking a look at a map… Take a look at this snowy owl range map to get an idea of just how far away these owls have traveled and where the breeding grounds are located.

Understanding how far snowy owls have journeyed to find themselves in Iowa just might be their ultimate message for us... to realize that here in Iowa, we play a major ecological role in the success of creatures far and wide, including those whose parents are currently hunting under the glow of the Northern Lights.

Snowy owls in 2013-14

At least 100 sightings of these arctic wanderers were reported from across Iowa. Marion County residents reported two snowy owls. One was a car strike and the other was retrieved extremely hungry, with an abrasion on the foot, and some other concerns. Most reports from Iowa licensed rehabilitators are that the birds were admitted extremely emaciated (their weight being one-half of what it should). Males should weigh around 3.5-4 pounds and females around 5 pounds. They were hungry birds finding themselves around roadside ditches where hunting for rodents may be easier, but totally unaware of the danger that lurks along car-traveled roads. Sounds like the 2017-18 winter doesn't it?

Even further back in time...

Some Marion County residents may remember when Gladys Black, our well known ornithologist, educator, and licensed rehabilitator, received “Nikki,” an injured snowy owl found in Clarke County by a hunter. That was the winter of 1980-81!. Nikki was publicly recognized and considered a miracle bird by many. Gladys nursed the owl every few hours with bites of rabbit, night and day. When it was time for Nikki to be released, a kind person with a Leer Jet headed for a Canada fishing trip, loaded up Nikki and took the owl back north. The small community in Canada held quite a celebration for the snowy owl’s return and even held a parade.

Check out this video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that does a great job of describing the life of a snowy!

Raptor Viewing Etiquette

We should all observe good raptor viewing etiquette, not only during the nesting season, but also during this time of migration.

Remember that raptors are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and bald and golden eagles have additional protections under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Read the snowy owl viewing etiquette from Project Snowstorm.