Unless you make a trip to the Arctic Circle in the months of June through September, you won’t be seeing the Snowy Owl. However, each winter, a small number of these birds make it to Ohio.
This winter, there have been two snowy owls spotted in northwest Ohio. In early December, one was spotted in Wood County, near Weston. Another was seen Dec. 18, near Archbold, on County Road, AC, between county roads 15 and 16.
The largest number of snowy owls occurred during the harsh winter of 2013-14, where at least two different snowys were spotted in Wood County, three in Lucas County, one in Fulton County and one near Paulding. Two of the birds, one each, were spotted in the fields of Toledo Express Airport and the Fulton County Airport, near Wauseon. That winter, a large irruption of snowy owls occurred overall, with some being seen in Virginia and as far south as Florida.
Another invasion of snowys, though less in numbers than the peak of 2013-14, occurred during the winter months in 2016-17.
Speculation is that it wasn’t the hard winter and cold temperatures that brought the birds into Ohio and places further south. Several local sources informed me that it was a large influx of the snowy’s favorite food, the lemming, occurred during the bird’s breeding season in the Arctic Circle. According to allaboutbirds.com, when there is a large lemming population and thus more food, snowy adults can successfully hatch as many as 11 owls in one nest. In normal years, 2-3 owls per nest successfully hatch.
The nests are found near the ground, in slight raises of the ground, to keep out blowing snow. It can be on the bare ground, with the female shaping the nest “by pressing its body into the depression. The process takes a few days and the pair may used the site for many years.” (wikipedia.org). The average lifespan of the snowy owl is 10 years.
With the large number of new owls, normal hunting territory became too crowded during the winter months, pushing the juveniles further south, into large numbers in the U.S. As a case in point, the vast majority of birds seen in the U.S. that winter were juveniles.
When it comes to snowys, it is pretty easy to tell a full fledged adult from a juvenile. The mature adults are pretty much white all over, while the juveniles are black and white, with a lot of black barring, or stripes. In both adults and immatures, the face of the snowy is pure white.
Amazingly, during the breeding months in the Arctic Circle, there is plenty of daylight for the owls to hunt, 24 hours worth in the peak months. As a result, snowy owls seen in the winter are daytime hunters, rare among most owl species.
The snowy owl, though good sized at 2-2.5 feet in length and with a wingspan of five feet (wikipedia.org), is not the largest owl that occurs in the U.S. However, the snowy is the heaviest of the North American owls, weighing in at 4.5 pounds.
Whether it’s a juvenile or pure white adult, the snowy owl, with its bright yellow eyes, is quite striking.
These birds, like a lot of birds of prey, can be spotted from a perch, ranging from light poles and fence posts, to hay bales. This bird, however, can easily be overlooked when there is snow on the ground. That’s because the snowy, which prefers open fields to hunt, can stay stationary, on the ground, when hunting. In these cases, a pure white snowy can look just like a white trash bag.
A couple of years ago, I found one in an open field in Wood County, by just that method. I looked for a snowy owl where one had been reported and found it with my binoculars, looking at what appeared with the naked eye to be a white trash bag.
During breeding season, it generally takes 32 days for the eggs in a nest to hatch. Newborns are helpless at first, only able to open their eyes after five days. Then, it’s another 18-25 days after hatching, before the owls leave the nest.
Besides lemmings, another food of choice in the summer are ptarmigans, a game bird. During the winter months, the snowys switch to mice, voles, rabbits, squirrels and weasels, plus, if near water, wading birds and ducks. The snowy owl is one of the most agile flyers of the owls, able to catch its prey in flight. Once caught, the prey is usually swallowed whole.
There could be a few more sightings of snowys this winter and who knows? Another influx in the lemming population could bring about another irruption of snowys in the near future.