Why are there so many snowy owls in Michigan this winter?

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There have been an abundance of snowy owl sightings in Michigan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

By Alyssa Kobylarek, MNA Intern

The snowy owl is a majestic bird that is native to the polar regions around the globe. During the shortest days of the year, the white owls of the Arctic have flown south to the Northeastern United States and the Great Lakes region in record numbers, making this a winter to remember for avid bird watchers and Harry Potter fans. While it is common to see sighting of the owl every year, there has been an increased number of them that indicates a higher population is migrating south. The movement to southern regions is thought to be the cause of an increase in the bird’s food supply in the Arctic. The frigid weather and early deep snow cover that Michigan has experienced this winter has also been a contributor to the early December migration of the snowy owls.

The snowy owl, which can be distinguished by it’s piercing yellow eyes that pop from it’s frosted white feathers, is protected in the United States as a migratory bird.  They display a population pattern that correlates with the abundance of their main source of food, the lemming. An increase in the lemming population in the Arctic caused a huge increase in the number of owls, which migrate south in search of more food during the winter. The snowy owl serves as a huge attraction to bird watchers and also benefits Western Michigan’s ecosystem. They control lower level populations of animals, such as rodents and other small birds. One owl may kill more than 1,600 lemmings in one year. Their main food sources are lemmings and mice, but they also eat rabbits, other birds and fish. They hunt by perching above the ground and watching their prey, where they swoop down from above and snatch them with their powerful legs and long talons.

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Snowy owls are known for their intense yellow eyes. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Snowy owls can be seen all over Western Michigan in areas like Grand Rapids, Lansing, Kalamazoo and around the Great lakes area.  They are commonly found in open spaces, fields and farmlands perched on light posts or fences. They are also popular at airports because the open and expansive runways are similar to the tundra habitats where the birds breed. While this is exciting for people who want to see these birds of prey, there have been many casualties with owls running into airplanes and getting severely injured or dying.  These birds are also dinural, which means they are active both during the day and night. This distinguishes the snowy owl from most other owls, which are nocturnal, so sightings during the day will be common. Be on the lookout for a snowy owl in your area or at an MNA sanctuary this winter!

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