Snowy Owls in Iowa
By Ashley Reed
Emmet County Naturalist
Recently, there have been some sightings of Snowy owls in our area. If you’ve been lucky enough to see one, they are quite striking. From their snow white feathers to their bright yellow eyes, these birds encapsulate the beauty of winter. The reason behind why we are seeing them is quite interesting and not what you would think.
When we think of migrating birds, they typically have the same flight pattern every year and have specific places that they end up in for the winter. Snowy owls are different because they are considered ‘nomadic’ meaning no year looks the same and there is no hard wired migration pattern. The reason for their travels south are related to food availability. These raptors live up in the arctic tundra and are used to harsh living conditions. They will feed on any small animals they can find but they mainly feed on a small rodent called a lemming.
The lemming population is very closely correlated to the Snowy owls' success. If there is a year with large lemming populations, this is when the owls decide to lay eggs and raise young. If it is a low food year, the birds do not produce many offspring. Just with every animal, populations naturally have an eb and flow.
This year would be considered an ‘irruption’ year for Snowy owls. This means that last spring, there was a large lemming population resulting in a good breeding year for the owls. With the increase in owls, there is a higher demand for food. During these irruption years, many young owls must make their way south to find food. Oddly enough, these large irruption years tend to happen every four years. There were many owls found in the states during the winters of 2014 and 2018, making this upcoming winter the next big year for Snowy owl sightings. People tend to spot these beautiful birds from the beginning of December through the end of February. They can sometimes be spotted as far south as Florida. They will go as far as needed in order to find sufficient food!
If you are looking to spot a Snowy owl, it is important to know their habits. Typically when we think of owls we think nocturnal, however these owls are diurnal. This means they can be seen hunting during the daytime and prefer to look for food over open fields or prairies. Their home of the arctic tundra is very open so they prefer to stick to similar landscapes while traveling south.
The main problem that these owls face, along with many other raptor species is people and vehicles. If you do spot a Snowy owl this winter, please admire it from afar. If you happen to see one, it’s hard to be mistaken for any other owl that we have in the area. These birds are truly fascinating and consider yourself lucky if you happen to cross one's path. They are a beautiful story of Mother Nature and perseverance.