'Tis the Season to Be Owlly

December 23, 2013

It's rare to see a snowy owl in the lower 48, but this winter the birds are heading south. Steve Zack, Coordinator of Bird Conservation at WCS, explains the reason for their arrival—and why these denizens of the Far North do care if we’re naughty or nice.

It's that time of year. You better watch out . . . There is a dramatic movement from the Far North this winter coming from the land of reindeer and caribou. The whiteness of the character is its most striking feature. When it arrives, it often alights atop roofs and its uncharted movements have been known to disrupt airport traffic. When heard it is less of a "ho, ho, ho,"-- more of a "Hoo, hoo, hoo." It doesn't care if we are naughty or nice.

It is the snowy owl, of course, and we are in the midst of a major irruption of them in the east. Such irruptions, which occur every couple of years in the lower 48, are generally due to low populations levels of its mainstay Arctic prey, lemmings -- particularly the collared lemming.

I was among snowy owls in Arctic Alaska for a decade, during the summer months as we monitored breeding birds that migrate there from all over the world and worked with other groups to help protect key wildlife areas in western Arctic Alaska.

Most of those years, snowy owls were few. But two of those summers we had conspicuous population booms of lemmings and the snowy owls (along with short-eared owls, rough-legged hawks, northern harriers and pomarine jaegers) were much more numerous. Those avian predators -- and mammalian predators like Arctic fox, red fox and ermines -- conspicuously feasted on such abundance.

Read the full blog on the Huffington Post >>
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