Friday, December 16, 2011

Snowy Owl Irruption!

By Katie Connolly, Naturalist at the Cable Natural History Museum

Hello! This is Katie, Naturalist at the Cable Natural History Museum. This week I’m going to take a turn writing Natural Connections, because there is something just way too cool happening right now in the Northwoods! I always get excited about raptors and bird of prey, so you can imagine how much my curiosity was piqued by news of a Snowy Owl irruption this winter.

Snowy Owls spend their summers on the Arctic tundra, raising their young and hunting small rodents like lemmings.  Lemmings on the Arctic tundra go through “boom and bust” cycles.  Some years there are more than enough lemmings to feed Arctic predators and in other years there are hardly any. The availability of prey dictates how far south Snowy Owls will travel in the winter to find food. The fewer lemmings there are up north, the farther south these owls will go. From the high number of Snowy Owl sightings being reported across the state of Wisconsin, scientists have deduced that this is an irruption year. Irruption years caused by lemming shortages occur in a somewhat regular cycle of four or five years. The last irruption Wisconsin experienced was in 2006.

Birders should be on the look-out for this large owl. They are most often seen in areas that resemble their native tundra home, such as large open fields or wetlands. As their name suggests, they are white with black, grey, or dark brown spots and bars. They are also diurnal (most active during the day) so your chances of seeing one are better during daylight hours.

A word of caution: If you do see a Snowy Owl, do your best not to disturb them. The reason they are here is because they are hungry and looking for food. Give them space and admire them from a distance, so they can hunt and catch prey without disruption.

Owls in general capture my attention with their solemn, peaceful stance and their commanding gaze. Their large, liquid eyes seem to delve straight into my soul. Snowies are no exception, with their amber gaze peering through the thick piles of alabaster feathers. No human jacket or parka compares to how efficiently an owl can conserve its body heat, with fluffed up down feathers trapping precious degrees of warmth. Even their feet are insulated with thousands of tiny feathers, covering their bare skin down to the very tips of its talons. The guard hairs around its beak give me a chuckle because they remind me of a thick, bushy, white mustache. 

Ornithologists are predicting that these Snowy Owls will be in our area until as late as March. I’ll be keeping my “owl eyes” sharp, in hopes of spotting one of these predators during their winter vacation to Wisconsin!

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, The Joy of Birds: Feathers in Focus opened in May, 2011. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Also discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

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