The snowy owl, an impressive bird of almost 2 feet in height with a 5 foot diameter wing span, is doing something unheard of that has experts in shock. They are on an unprecedented mass migration, moving from their Arctic habitat down into the lower 48 states. Experts state that it’s not unusual to see a few owls migrate south to breed, but never this many. Not even during normal periodic mass southerly migrations known as irruptions.
The owls have been spotted in Massachusetts, Missouri, Idaho, Montana and as far south as Oklahoma.
Denver Holt, who has studied snowy owls in their Arctic tundra ecosystem for two decades, stated, “this is the most significant wildlife event in decades.”
According to Holt, the reason behind this mass exodus may be related to an explosion in the lemming population last year. Lemmings are a main food source for the owls and such a bumper crop of rodents most likely resulted in a bumper crop of baby owls. The resulting greater competition for food is probably what’s driving the mostly young male snowy population south.
Bird enthusiasts from Texas, Arizona and Utah are flocking to the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest to see the birds. They’re also pouring tourist dollars into local economies and crowding parks and wildlife areas.
“For the last couple months, every other visitor asks if we’ve seen a snowy owl today,” said Frances Tanaka, a volunteer for the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Olympia, Washington.
But there’s a sad side to this. Emaciated and starving birds have been sited. It’s believed the snowy owl population is already on the decline due to climate change. But research on the animals is scarce because of the remoteness and extreme conditions of the terrain the owls occupy, including northern Russia and Scandinavia.
“There’s a lot of speculation. As far as hard evidence, we really don’t know,” Holt said.
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