2022 Memory Lane Moments: Snowy Owls on the Mississippi Flyway

Memory Lane Moment #2 comes from Lori Carnes! She wrote: “My favorite thing this past year was watching and learning about the snowy owls with our Mississippi Flyway chatters!”

Watchers might remember the incredible Snowy Owl irruption on the Flyway in January and February of this year. What were they doing so far from their arctic home? Some species are normally resident on their territories year-round (like Great Horned Owls and Barred Owls), some species are more or less migratory (like Northern Saw-whet Owls), some are nomadic, wandering around and settling where the food is (like Short-eared Owls), and some are irruptive, where a bunch show up in random years (like Snowy Owls and Great Gray Owls).

What were the Snowy Owls doing here?

We think that Snowy Owl irruptions are linked to food availability and successful breeding. Snowy owls prey heavily on lemmings, a stocky, stump-tailed rodent that might be abundant one year and almost impossible to find the next. A good lemming year is usually an excellent year for snowy owl production, which means a lot of competition for newly fledged owlets. An experienced owl can shift to other prey, but competition and food shortages often force younger, inexperienced birds south of their usual range.

Snowy Owls look for places that resemble their tundra home: flat and treeless. This often translates into river ice, flat fields, and even airports. Lake Onalaska is an excellent place for them: rodents are abundant and people aren’t especially common. Will we see them again in 2023? Thanks to satellite tracking, banding and tagging, researchers have discovered that Snowy Owls can be faithful to their wintering sites more than to their breeding sites. Dan Zazelenchuk, a Snowy Owl bander from Saskatchewan, caught the same owl 13 years after it was first banded in the same general location. Norman Smith, who traps owls at Logan Airport in Boston, has also banded Snowy Owls many years after first banding them at the airport. So keep your eyes peeled!

Thanks to Karla Bloem, founder and director of the International Owl Center, for writing a guest blog on the snowies! You can read that here: https://www.raptorresource.org/2022/01/10/snowy-owl-faqs-and-information/. If you’d like to take a deep dive into snowy owl migration and/or winter travels in the arctic, read this blog by Project SNOWstorm: https://www.projectsnowstorm.org/tracking-snowy-owls/.