In the magical realm of Harry Potter, many fans will recall his pet snowy owl Hedwig. Long before this beautiful owl cast a spell on the literary front, snowy owls have bewitched those who have seen them in person. Now, many in the Show-Me-State have the opportunity to see this powerful white owl from the north.
Rodney Chappell was working outdoors Dec. 17 in Columbia when something unusual caught his eye. An avid birder, he saw a glimpse of something large and white.
“The first thought I had was that it was a hawk,” Chappell said. “But it flew nearby so I got a better look, and its white plumage really stood out.”
What Chappell thinks he saw was a snowy owl. The large, white owl with black markings is rarely seen in mid-Missouri. A single snowy owl in the region is big news to birders. Missouri is on the southern edge of their winter range. Snowy owls normally inhabit the high arctic region of North America and Eurasia.
“About once every four years, snowy owl sightings will peak in Missouri, generally in years when populations of their prey (mainly lemmings) crash,” said Missouri Department of Conservation Wildlife Ecologist Brad Jacobs. “During these crashes, the birds travel south in search of food.”
This southern migration is referred to as “irruptions.” Only a small portion of snowy owls—usually immature individuals— are observed in the northern part of the state.
This year, however, the birds are being spotted in Missouri earlier than normal. Since Dec. 1, snowy owls have been observed at Smithville Lake in the Kansas City area, Kirksville, Trenton, and at Long Branch Lake in Macon.
According to Jacobs, there seem to be a few more birds than normal, perhaps even more than by this time during the 2011-2012 southward irruption. That was the last and largest recorded irruption, with 69 snowy owls reported in Missouri.
Snowy owls are similar in size to great horned owls, which are common in Missouri, but are much darker than snowy owls. Most of the snowy owls visiting Missouri this winter are juveniles. During past irruptive years, about 10 percent of the young birds died of starvation.
“Snowy owls that migrate this far south are unfamiliar with humans and cars. Some do not survive to make a return trip north,” Jacobs said. “They are used to a solitary life on the tundra, with few humans, vehicles and power lines. Here, they are hunting and living in unfamiliar conditions.”
Jacobs cautions motorist who see large, white birds standing on or near roadways to give these birds a brake, because snowy owls are not used to avoiding automobile traffic.
“Snowy owls are used to hunting in wide-open spaces and often land on highways,” Jacobs said. “Many of the birds will be focused on hunting and probably won’t be quick enough to get out of the way of a speeding car.”
Jacobs said people should not approach the birds or disturb them, and he suggests that owl watchers observe from a distance. If you see a snowy owl, please call Jacobs at 573-522-4115, ext. 3648. Anyone finding a dead snowy owl is asked to contact their local conservation agent or office.
Chappell was thrilled with his encounter of this arctic visitor, even if he did not get it confirmed.
“As a birder, you relish the opportunity to see something like a snowy owl in Missouri,” Chappell said. “Even though I can’t say with 100-percent certainty that it was a snowy, I now know to keep a look out and, hopefully, I’ll get another chance. It really is just a beautiful bird to behold.”