For most birds in the US, going south for the winter typically means at least crossing the Mason-Dixon
Line. But for Snowy Owls, as long as there is enough food, a winterly southern migration often sees them staying mostly north of the US/Canadian border with forays into the northern US and New England. Snowy Owls are truly built for frigid weather. Their massive amount of fluffy feathers even covers most of their legs and feet, and makes them the heaviest, although not the largest, owl. But they need this insulation to brave the kind of cold they encounter in the snowy landscapes where they blend in. Snowies eat lemmings – and lots of them! If they can’t find the 1600 each year they need to survive, they will eat other small mammals and birds including ducks. But in a really tough year, when lemming populations crash, they will go wherever they need to find food. Sometimes that means deep into the lower 48, and when this happens it is called an “irruption.”
Snowy Owls breed high in the northern Arctic – and many lay their 3-11 eggs on extremely remote islands where there are few trees and lots of open space. This is where Snowy Owls excel and feel most at home. When they do fly into areas where there is more civilization, they look for similar habitats – like prairies or airports. There is still a lot about these solitary owls we don’t know, so when they are found farther south, the team at Project Snowstorm can spring into action. Co-founded by award-winning nature writer and active field scientist, Scott Weidensaul, this primarily volunteer group of scientists, bird banders and wildlife vets comprises one of the largest collaborative research projects in the world. Scientists trap snowy owls, and after taking their vital info, fit them with a GPS pack which can track their every move.
Take a look at Coteau and the rest of the US birds in Scott Wedensaul’s December 31 update. And find out more about Snowy Owls in the piece by National Geographic. Project SNOWstorm has been going on since 2013. While most of the data they have gathered is encouraging, there is some disturbing news as there is increasing evidence that these birds all have some level of toxins — from rodenticides to mercury. There are still a lot of gaps to fill in the information about these birds, but Project SNOWstorm is changing that.
Make a point of looking at the Project Snowstorm website where you can see the individual birds they follow, read some of their stories, and see where they have spent the past year or so. Use their interactive maps, where you can see if any of the owls they are tracking are in your area.