Everyone loves snowy owls, right?
A snowy owl in Canada, courtesy of David Syzdek via wikimedia commons.
A bright white, two-foot-tall, diurnal owl possessing piercing yellow eyes and a 4.5 foot wingspan, Bubo scandiacus is the very definition of a charismatic megafauna. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that “[t]he regal Snowy Owl is one of the few birds that can get even non-birders to come out for a look.” And, in fact, a snowy owl sighting at Aquidneck Island’s Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge drew me, my wife, our then-11-month-old, and my parents out to peer through binoculars on a frigid January day about two years ago, where, yes, we saw one of these impressive birds.
Two years ago, a single snowy owl in Rhode Island was a rarity. This year, though, there have apparently been 15 sightings here. And some down in Delaware, where “they’re just excited the owls are there.” And some “already reaching North Carolina and Bermuda!” In New York, airport officials even shot three of them (big bird plus planes equals potential disaster — I guess not everyone loves snowy owls after all) before deciding to trap them instead.
Why are there so many snowy owls along the east coast of the United States this year? Some say a banner year for Arctic lemmings (a favorite snowy-owl snack) has led to lots of breeding success for the owls — and now lots of offspring dispersing across great distances as a result of competition for food.
But, as reported in USA Today, New Jersey Audubon’s Pete Dunne says the answer might be more complicated. Maybe there were so few Arctic lemmings this year that famished owls are flying farther afield for food (though this seems less likely given that apparently most southward-migrating owls are young). Or maybe melting polar ice is displacing female owls’ breeding grounds, forcing the entire snowy-owl operation further south, beginning even before birth.
Dunne says this last point is speculation. But still, one wonders — lemmings or no lemmings, things certainly are changing in the Arctic. And now here snowy owls are in Rhode Island.