Wildlife: Snowy owls invade the United States

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From Minnesota to the East Coast and as far south as the Carolinas, the last two weeks have seen hundreds of snowy owls wandering south from the tundra to temperate regions.

For birders, it's a chance to see a spectacular "life" bird. And thanks to the Harry Potter stories, many non-birders know snowy owls thanks to Harry's pet owl, Hedwig.

Most reports have come from the Great Lake states and the Northeast, including Pennsylvania. Normally snowy owls live far from human observers on the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. Though most years a few snowy owls wander south, this seems to be a true invasion year.

Exactly why invasions occur is subject to debate. Conventional wisdom is that lemming populations crash every three to five years, and snowy owls avoid starvation by moving south to find food. Yet dead, emaciated owls are seldom found. I suspect that snowies move south in search of food because they're hungry, but before they actually begin starving. It's an adaptive response to an unsteady food supply.

Whatever the cause, southbound snowy owl irruptions delight birders. Unlike most owls, they are active by day and prefer open habitat -- airports, hay fields, beaches, cemeteries -- so they are easy to find. Often they perch conspicuously on fence posts, power line poles and even building roofs.

Snowy owls stand about 2 feet tall, have a wingspan of more than 4 feet, and weigh about 4 pounds. Older males are mostly white, first-year birds are heavily marked with black bars, and adult females show some black barring. Often during invasion years, many birds are juveniles. This suggests that when food is limited, competition from adults force younger birds to leave first.

When snowy owls visit airports, they pose a safety hazard to aircraft. Within days of their recent arrival, the Port Authority of New York reported several owl-plane strikes and authorized killing them. Public outrage ensued. Boston's Logan airport routinely traps and relocates trespassing snowy owls, so there's no reason New York's airports couldn't do the same. In response to the public's outcry, the New York Port Authority reversed its position and issued a press release saying that trap-and-relocate would be the new policy.

To learn of any snowy owls nearby, call the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (412-963-6100), a wild bird store, or search online for "snowy owls."

If you find a snowy owl, enjoy it from a distance. These birds have traveled a long distance, and they are stressed and hungry. If you spook snowy owls, you're too close.

For continuing coverage of the snowy owl invasion, visit www.ebird.org. Let's hope for a long, "snowy" winter.

Biologist, author, and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) or online at www.wvly.net. Or visit his website www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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