FEB 05, 2014 12:00 AM PST

Snowy Owls in Southern Climates?

WRITTEN BY: Jen Ellis
Snowy owls are some of the most beautiful and regal creatures to be found in northern climates. With a typical wingspan of around 5 feet, they swoop across the Arctic Tundra and use their tremendous sense of hearing and outstanding eyesight to feed off of lemmings and other animals available to them within their habitat-ranging from rabbits to fish to other birds.

It's not uncommon for snowy owls to occasionally migrate to the northern areas of North America, Europe and Asia, especially along the Southern Canadian border with the United States. However, they are appearing more frequently in southern climates. Birdwatchers have been increasingly spotting them in relatively southern climates-in Washington D.C, Kansas, Arkansas, Florida, and even all the way to Bermuda. Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at Cornell University, has theorized this could be the greatest migration of snowy owls reaching the southeast portion of the United States in twenty years.

Perhaps to Harry Potter fans this is evidence of increased communication activity in the wizard world, but we Muggles are looking for alternate explanations. The reason is more mundane-it is the food supply. However, it may not be for the reasons you expect.

Your first instinct is probably that when the food supply is low, snowy owls trend further south in search of food. The key may have as much to do with the owl supply as the food supply.

Denver Holt, a biologist from Montana and the Executive Director of the Owl Research Institute, believes that an abundance of lemmings (the favorite food of snowy owls) as well as other small rodents leads to increased breeding of snowy owls-and in turn more owls hunting in the same area. Ornithologists have noted that there appears to be a larger migration of younger birds, which would be logically consistent with this theory.

McGowan believes that the southern appearance of the snowy owls (and therefore the increase of lemmings and other food sources) may be a potential byproduct of climate change in the Arctic, but it's too early for any conclusions. However, if southern snowy owl migration becomes a new pattern, climate change may be the reason why.

While the snowy owl invasion is a bonanza for ornithologists and bird watchers, it's a nuisance for others. For example, there have been reports of snowy owls at U.S. airports, where they can pose a hazard to planes. It is believed that the snowy owls mistake airports for their normal Arctic tundra habitat due to their relatively open spaces. Airport managers have been trying to drive them away or trap and relocate them, and some have even been reported to shoot at them.

If you are a Southern birdwatcher, enjoy the snowy owls while you can, because they are expected to head back toward their Arctic Tundra home in March. In the meantime, expect research to continue into the future migration habits of snowy owls as yet another measure of the changing Arctic climate and the effects of global warming.
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