Do Owls Migrate?

Great gray owl

Most owls don’t migrate like songbirds.  But during some winters, owls are forced south of their range, looking for food.  When they go en masse to more southerly places, this is called an “irruption”.  It’s not really migration as it isn’t an annual event. But for owls, who tend to not move around too much, it’s close.  Some owl species, such as the Barred owl do not migrate at all.  In fact, a radio-telemetry study showed that Barred owls typically mate for life and rarely move out of the same six-mile radius their entire lives.

There are exceptions like some Burrowing owls, who move from Canada and the Rockies area to Texas into Central America in winter. Some owls like the little Northern Saw-whet owl has an overlapping year round and winter range, while the Short-eared owl moves from its summer home in northern Canada to its winter home in the central and southern US.

 In the winter of 2011, the northeast United States experienced an abundance of Snowy owls.  These beautiful owls nest in the arctic tundra during the summer and feed mainly off of lemmings.  It is thought that a productive breeding year led to more competition for food in late fall, which drove the owls south in search of food.  During that winter, Snowy owls were reported in 31 states and were all reported along beaches, valleys or open plains.  Although the invasion of 2011 was quite large for Snowy owls, it is estimated these irruptions occur every three to six years.  If you have the chance in the next few years to see a Snowy owl, go and see it!  For now, you can check out the photo and video essay from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on Snowy Owls.

Keep an eye out for owl activity now and throughout the winter.