Snowy Owls: a graceful poem in flight

People are getting purely blissed out on snowy owl sightings. These beautifully garbed carnivores, with legs booted in plumage and wings right out of aΒ Japanese print, have traveled south from the Arctic in an irruption. What is an irruption, you say, and how is it different from a migration? Well, a migration is a “regular seasonal journey,” such as the annual odyssey of the monarch from Canada to Mexico, while irruptions happen in more capricious ways that are difficult to anticipate. Generally defined as “a breaking or bursting in,” irruptions are ecologically understood as the temporary exodus of a population when the checks and balances of their home environment swing out of control. In this case, the favored prey, lemmings, experienced a population crash, so their predator moved on to greener pastures.

While the wayfaring birds don’t seem to be especially drawn to cities, they do have a fondness for airports, with Boston’s being attractive enough to merit a mention in the New York Times. The airport actually sustains the largest population of snowy owls in the entire northeast. The terrain of Logan is very familiar to the owls, being so like their native Arctic tundra with its long, flat, treeless expanses. And while there certainly aren’t any lemmings in Massachusetts, the airport landscape is filled with delicate morsels such as voles (cousins of the lemming) and rats. For the birds, airports serve as an ideal home away from home, but the owls are large enough (over two feet tall, with a wingspan of nearly five) to pose a threat to aircraft. As a result they are typically captured, banded, and released in a less dodgy area. On occasion they are also fitted with tiny transmitters that allow researchers to map their wanderings.

As long as you live in the United States or southern Canada you should keep your eyes wide open during the next few months – with an owl seen as far south as Hawaii(!!), who knows where you may come across one. If you have already enjoyed an encounter with one of these beautiful birds I would truly love to hear about it in a comment.

Sources: Photographs – owl flying from http://www.hdcelebrity.net/, owl on wire from the Sam Zim blog. Title taken from Snowy Owl by David Lessard.

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16 responses

  1. Nice explanation of why we are suddenly seeing Snowies all over the continent – and beyond! I have yet to see one. They have occasionally shown up in Central Park, apparently, although I haven’t heard about any sightings this year. Pretty tricky choosing airports for habitat – glad to hear they are being trapped and released.

    • Thank you! I hope that you’re able to see one someday. I haven’t yet, either, though I just flew in and out of Logan – who knows how many may have been near?

  2. Owls are one of my favorites so I absolutely loved this! Not sure I’ll ever see a Snowy here in Florida, but I do have a pair of ginormous owls in my backyard. (when my doxie was a pup, we had to supervise his “outside time” carefully so as to be sure one of those gigantor owls didn’t snatch him off and fly away. Sadly, the dachshund is a little chubby these days and would pose a difficult getaway for the poor owl or other bird of prey who took a shot at him). Wow, that was a long way of saying, “thanks, I loved your post!”

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  4. This was fascinating and highly enlightening! Yes, I did pause at “Irruptions”…thought it to be a typo and now I know. I wish for you and your lucky readers many sightings of this beautiful owl, I for one can’t wait!

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