The sighting of a snowy owl is usually a special treat for birders and non-birders alike in this part of the country, due to their irregular appearance here in winter. According to Bryerton, snowy owls are irruptive, showing up in larger numbers some winters but not others. “There are usually a few every year,” he said of the yellow-eyed raptors, “but some years they arrive in greater numbers. The cause of these irruptions is not entirely understood, but it’s believed that it has to do with thriving prey populations. When there are more rodents, snowy owls have more young because food is plentiful.”
By weight, snowy owls are the largest North American owl species. Most weigh between 3.5 and 6.5 pounds. Snowy owls have white feathers, with a mix of black and brown markings on their wings and body. According to Cornell Lab, female snowy owls can have a denser mix of these markings, giving them a salt-and-pepper look. Males tend to be lighter in color in comparison and actually become paler as they age.
About the size of a crow, snowy owls nest on the ground and can be found near shorelines of lakes and in open fields. “They breed in the arctic tundra where there aren’t any trees,” Bryerton explained, “so they don’t roost in trees and stay relatively near to the ground. You might find them on fence posts along an open field or even near shopping centers because there’s open space with usually a retention pond. Snowy owls are also active during the day since in the tundra there are no nighttime hours in the summer.” Last year, a snowy owl was sighted near Riverview Farmstead Preserve in Naperville. 2017 marked an irruption year for this species.
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A snowy owl’s diet can range from rodents, rabbits and squirrels to wading birds, ducks and even geese. On the tundra, they mainly eat lemmings, but sometimes will switch to ptarmigan and waterfowl, Cornell Lab reports. Snowy owls give low, raspy sounding hoots, but they can also whistle and hiss in defense. Like most owls, they are tenacious and have been known to dive-bomb and strike at species much larger than themselves when feeling threatened. Reports have included an attack on a pair of arctic wolves and even clashes with humans. Snowy owls are considered to be a species in decline. In 2016, they were listed on the State of North America's Birds' Watch List.
Overall, Bryerton said winter provides a great opportunity to spot one or more of these owl species. “If you’ve always wanted to see an owl,” he said, “winter is a good time of year to start. The fact that it’s getting darker sooner, we tend to run into them a little more because our active time is overlapping with their active time. So you don’t have to stay up very late to spot one.”
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