The Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus) is one of the best-known members of its order, Strigiformes. One could make the argument that the Snowy Owl even rivals the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) as one of our most iconic birds. That’s partially due to the Snowy Owl’s presence in popular media, but also because Snowy Owls are just downright cool. The popularity of Snowy Owls is, ironically, a risk to them, because, in their zeal to glimpse or photograph this bird, eager birders and other nature lovers have been known to disturb individuals of this sensitive species.
While most Snowy Owls spend the breeding season far away from people, finding a Snowy Owl in winter is an exciting possibility for many ABA Area birders. It is thus essential that birders hoping to find and enjoy Snowy Owls always remember to do so ethically. This article offers some tips on how birders can seek out and appreciate Snowies without harming them, along with some background on their basic biology to underscore why these guidelines are needed.
One reason Snowy Owls are so beloved is that they are difficult to track, find, and observe in the wild: The challenge of finding a Snowy makes them that much more exciting. Snowy Owls travel south every winter in the ABA Area, where their largest numbers stretch across the continent from November to as late as April. Snowy Owls are also found in the Palearctic and can irrupt throughout Eurasia. In the ABA Area, the owls migrate south from the Arctic tundra, can show up as far south as Texas and Florida, and have even reached Hawaii and Bermuda. It is important to note that many of these owls that travel this far south in the winter do not survive the journey.
In New Jersey and elsewhere along the Mid-Atlantic Coastline, the owls are drawn to the habitat provided on barrier islands. In winter, devoid of beachgoers, the sandy barrier islands of the Garden State provide a haven for these large raptors. Snowy Owls are primarily white, with black barring that varies by age and sex, being heavier in younger birds than in older birds and heavier in females than males. Males can turn almost pure white as they become older. Females also grow a glowing white complexion in their plumage, but always retain some thin black barring for their entire lives. This camouflage is used to avoid predation on younger owls and nesting females from foxes, coyotes, or even wolves in tundra and boreal habitats.
Looking out on a Jersey barrier island in winter, the habitat oddly resembles the Arctic tundra in a lot of locations, and that’s what brings these large white raptors south each season. Feasting on beach mice, rabbits, and smaller ducks such as Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis), the owls rest among the dunes when they arrive along coast barrier islands, but take up a similar diet elsewhere across the Lower 48 and southern Canada.
Snowy Owls live out most of their lives in and around the Arctic Circle. This environment, although often perceived as barren, consists of wide-open tundra spaces with small freshwater creeks running through them, making the habitat rich with life. This is a completely snow-covered landscape throughout most of the year. Snowy Owls use this landscape to their advantage for hunting, bringing those skills south each winter.
By eroding the ice and tundra landscape the owls depend on up north, climate change plays a role in the successes and failures of Snowy Owls. When owls migrate south, they encounter radical changes, too: Barrier islands are shifting faster than any other landscape in the U.S. This is immensely challenging for the owls because they depend on this region for survival.
Snowy Owls survive the harsh conditions of their northern range on a steady diet of rodents, and the most abundant and easiest to catch are lemmings. Lemmings (genus Lemmus) are the Arctic equivalent of house mice. Lemmings are extremely important to owlets. The lemming populations fluctuate from year to year, and, as with most rodents, every four or five years there is a tremendous increase in their population.
In years of lemming surges, an increased number of Snowy Owls successfully rear broods during the breeding season. The breeding season for Snowies begins as soon as the owls return from their southern migration in March or April. The parent owls accumulate dozens of lemmings prior to the hatching of their chicks in the summer so the offspring will have enough to eat. The owlets load up on lemmings and reach maturity just as the calendar flips at the end of the year.
As many birders know, this burst in the population of owls is called an irruption, and results in owls migrating farther south than normal, sometimes traveling astonishing distances. Snowy Owl irruptions tend to occur every four or five years. This increase in the owl population correlates directly with the booms and busts of the lemming population. The owls, with younger birds leading the way, descend en masse over southern Canada and broad swaths of the U.S. Much is still not understood about irruptions.
Snowy Owls face a host of challenges as they migrate south. One of the most common causes of owl mortality is when a younger owl loses its way and ends up flying into a storm or too far out into the Atlantic. Owls are not swimmers.
The next highest cause of mortality is airplanes. Picture the tarmac of an airport in winter: plenty of open space, rodents, and colds winds that remind the world’s second-largest owl of home. Snowies attracted to this habitat are hit by planes. These fatal interactions occur in almost all major airports and are monitored across the country by state or local authorities as well as organizations. In some cases, Snowy Owls are, tragically, killed by airport personnel in order to keep runways safe for passengers. For example, perhaps the southernmost Snowy Owl ever recorded, a male that arrived in the Honolulu Airport on Oahu in 2011, was shot after failed attempts to scare it away.
Project SNOWstorm is an organization dedicated to studying and providing advance notice of Snowy Owl movements throughout the year. This project also tags, tracks, and safeguards Snowies whenever possible.
One of the best ways to remember the key points of Snowy Owl viewing ethics is with the acronym OWL:
O – Observe: 100 yards away with binoculars, camera, or scope.
W – Wander: Do not ever wander close to the animal!
L –Leave no trace: Snowy Owls are sensitive to habitat disturbance, so, when they’ve found a suitable hunting area, it is important for people to leave it as is.
Birders love finding and watching Snowy Owls, but ethical viewing is essential so that their migration is not disrupted. Respecting a Snowy Owl when one is near can help ensure the survival of the animal. Close contact with people looking for the best photo or social media opportunity brings new challenges to an apex predator that seldom sees, let alone is forced to encounter and directly deal with, humans.
Increasingly, these birds of prey are showing up in cities, even New York’s Central Park in 2021, to the amazement and bewilderment of birders and non-birders alike. Interactions do not always go smoothly, as many people wander too close to the owl in America’s most populous city.
The key things to keep in mind are to maintain a safe distance, give the owl plenty of warning of any movements you may make, and bring the right gear to view the owl. To give an owl warning, you want to stand in the open and let the owl identify you as a nonthreat as the raptor scans its surroundings. If you ever find yourself too close to this bird of prey, don’t make sudden or quick movements.
A safe distance from larger animals in the wild is generally about 100 yards, and Snowy Owls are no exception. Staying in front of the owl, rather than hiding behind a dune or shrub and jumping out, will help keep the owl calm. Bring binoculars, a spotting scope, or a camera with a large telephoto lens if clear shots from 300 feet away are desired.
Above all else, remember that seeing a Snowy Owl takes time and often more than a few expeditions. A Snowy Owl sighting will never disappoint, but, in turn, we must not disappoint or disturb this majestic raptor.
Growing up in the bird-rich woodlands of South Jersey, Joe Moore was prepared early on for a life in the natural world. He picked up birding as a hobby in his early 20s, and his passion led him to switch careers into conservation and even start his own ecotourism company, South Jersey Wildlife Tours. When not birding for work or pleasure, Joe dedicates most of his time to his children, Rhys and Avery.
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