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The Buzz

Migration Watch: Snowy Owls Have Landed in Illinois

(Photo via Shutterstock)

With every season comes the anticipation of wildlife lovers looking forward to a return of some of their favorite species, and one bird that's a rare treat to see — the snowy owl — has landed in Illinois.

These birds have started heading south, and we have our first reported Illinois sighting in McHenry County. While it's north of here, the birds clearly are on the move. There also have been reported sightings to the east of us in Indiana. 

Snowy owls spend warm months above the Arctic Circle, but in the winter they head south to the Lower 48 states to hunt for food, which typically consists of lemmings and other small mammals and waterfowl. 

While sightings around here can be rare, there are exceptions. For example, we saw a snowy owl irruption in 2017, with a sudden influx of these birds hitting the area. Ornithologists are still trying to sort out what exactly triggers large vs. small movements with these birds, but studies have debunked the myth that snowy owls are driven by starvation to fly south


If you see a snowy owl, it's important to follow some basic rules when respectfully observing and photographing them. Responsible bird-watching etiquette states that a birder’s presence should not change the behavior of a bird. If a bird is reacting to you, then you are too close. The International Owl Center also offers some good guidance.

If you encounter a snowy owl or any other type of bird or animal in the wild that is injured, the University of Illinois Extension has a comprehensive website, Wildlife Illinois, that gives information on what you should do. For instance, with regard to larger birds, the extension service says it's best to call an expert.

"Birds of prey (hawks, falcons, eagles and owls) and large wading birds (herons and egrets) should not be handled by the public because they can cause very serious injury," the website explains. "For help for other birds, call a wildlife rehabilitator for assistance. Note that not all rehabilitators are licensed to care for birds."

Contact information for wildlife rehabilitators, IDNR wildlife biologists and conservation police can be found on the Wildlife Illinois website. According to the website, local or conservation police should be called if an animal poses a threat to public health or safety.


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