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Nature’s Best By Elma Chapman - Snowy Owls

♪ ♫ Have yourself a Snowy little Christmas . . . ♫ ♪ Snowy owl, that is! This year there are snowy owls showing up everywhere in the eastern United States including LaGrange and Elkhart Counties!

Usually snowy owls visit the northern U.S. every four years or so, but this is not a scheduled year and we are getting more of them than usual. Snowy owls are an owl of the arctic tundra. They are about two feet tall and weigh up to four pounds, the heaviest owl in North America. They breed on the tundra, scraping a nest into the ground and incubating up to a dozen eggs in a good year. In a year when their prey is limited, they may not breed at all or only lay a few eggs. Their favorite food is lemmings, a small rodent of the Arctic, but they also eat other small rodents, songbirds, and waterfowl. According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, a pair of snowy owls with 12 hatchlings may eat 2,000 lemmings before the young are able to feed themselves. They differ from most other owls because they are active during the day, particularly at dawn and dusk. During the day they may sit quietly on a high perch watching for something to eat, and then swooping down and grabbing it with their sharp talons. Because they live in the very cold north, they have feathers on their legs and feet as well as the rest of their body. They are mostly white, with some brown barring. The mature males are the whitest, with the young and females showing more bars.

When they invade the U.S. ornithologists call it an “irruption.” (And that’s not a typo—no relation to volcanic eruptions!) Why do they periodically show up here? There are several theories, but no one is sure. Scientists used to think it was because of a crash in the lemming population, but now some are thinking it’s because of a lemming overabundance: when the food source is plentiful, more young are successfully raised and thus they must disperse somewhere. Another theory has to do with the severity of the weather in the Arctic. Are they predicting a severe winter here? We don’t know. However, it seems that most of the birds that show up here during an irruption are from this year’s nests, that is, less than a year old.

This year they are being seen along the East Coast and along the Great Lakes in particular, but also inland. The Indiana Dunes State Park has reported several sightings recently. Because there are few trees in the tundra, you are likely to see these owls in an open field or an airport. In fact, the NY Port Authority shot a couple of them that were hanging around the airports because they were deemed a risk to flights taking off and landing. A public outcry followed, and now they are being live-trapped and relocated away from airplanes. But in a large urban area, an airport may be the closest thing to an open field that the owls can find! And this year snowy owls have been seen as far south as North Carolina, and one was reported in Bermuda! Montrose Beach in downtown Chicago was also visited by a snowy owl or two.

In LaGrange County there was a confirmed sighting this past weekend in Howe, near the corner of 100 E. and 600 N. The owl was perched on some irrigation equipment and remained there for several hours. To see pictures of this owl, go to Facebook and search for Birding Indiana. Another source that maps all the sightings so far this year is www.ebird.org. If you click on the sighting markers, you can see who reported the sighting, where and when, and sometimes a picture of the bird.

Earlier on December 1 an employee of the Elkhart County Parks and Recreation sighted a snowy owl at the intersection of C.R. 26 and the Pumpkinvine Trail. (Even the owls like the Pumpkinvine Trail, apparently!) There have also been sightings in South Bend and in the Walmart parking lot in Wabash!

So keep your eyes open. This may be your year to see a snowy owl right here. But don’t approach them closely. Observe them with binoculars or a spotting scope. If you disturb their hunting, you may be limiting their chances for survival. Appreciate them from a distance and report any sightings to ebird.org.

Merry Christmas!