Birders See Snowy Owl Farther South

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Melissa Block interviews Jim McCormac, a biologist with Ohio's Division of Wildlife, about why snowy owls are being sighted farther south in the United States than in previous years. He says most years, there are two to four of them sighted, but there have already been 15 sighted in Ohio since mid-December. He talks about his theory of why this is happening.


Now to some feathered visitors to the lower 48 from way up in the Arctic tundra. This winter, a whole lot of snowy owls have been spotted all across the country, way farther south than you would usually see them and in greater numbers, from Washington state to Maine and as far south as Oklahoma. The sudden appearance is called an irruption, and it makes for exciting times for birders like Jim McCormac. He's a biologist with Ohio's Division of Wildlife. Welcome to the program, Jim. Have you had some snowy owl sightings yourself?

JIM MCCORMAC: Just yesterday, Melissa.

BLOCK: Yeah. What did you see?

MCCORMAC: Well, we've got about 15 that I know of here in Ohio.


MCCORMAC: And we're right at the southern limits of their irruptions when they do come down. And there's a particularly famous one up by the little town of Jumbo, Ohio. You've probably not heard of it.

BLOCK: I haven't.

MCCORMAC: But anyway, the snowy owl is very cooperative, and I saw them yesterday.

BLOCK: And what - it was a male?

MCCORMAC: I should say her, female.

BLOCK: It was a her, female. What did she look like?

MCCORMAC: If you crossed your eyes and blurred your vision, it looked like a big white grocery sack out in the field. They stand about two feet tall, and these are not shrinking violets, see, by any stretch of the imagination. If one is around, it's going to be sitting out in a prominent perch in the middle of a field, probably on a little knoll where everyone can see it. They're not very scared of anything. As a matter of fact, they can successfully defend their nests from animals like Arctic fox and gray wolf. These are tough guys, so it's pretty easy to spot them.

BLOCK: And if they're flying, the wingspan is just amazing, right?

MCCORMAC: Five feet.

BLOCK: Wow. Well, why are they here this winter, Jim? What are you hearing about them?

It's all about lemmings.


MCCORMAC: You know, the ones that jump off the cliffs every four years, which they really don't do. But lemmings are little furry sausages with legs, and they really, really drive a lot of what goes on with predators, including snowy owls. So the probable theory, actually, is there was a superabundance of lemmings this year up in the Arctic. And there were so many lemmings that the owls in response will lay more eggs, so there's a lot more young owls. And so there's not enough food to get through the winter, so a lot of them come south.

BLOCK: And good news for you and for a lot of other avid birders out there.

MCCORMAC: Oh, absolutely. These are incredibly charismatic animals. I mean, just imagine if you're a kid and you're into "Harry Potter," now you get to go see Hedwig in the flesh, sitting out in the field. People who really don't even have that much interest in birds are going ape over these things. And we've had some of these owls in Ohio that have attracted hundreds of visitors, made all the local papers, newspaper, radio and, well, now, they're on NPR. And so...


BLOCK: Well, here's the one possible downside of all this, I guess, Jim. I was just looking at a photograph from Lawrence, Kansas, of a snowy owl that was injured after it hit a power line. It had a broken wing and ultimately died. There's a mention of another one that was hit by a car. I mean, if they're used to big open spaces in the Arctic tundra, they're in for a rude awakening, I guess, when they come this far south sometimes.

MCCORMAC: I'm glad you brought that up, Melissa. That's a really a good point. These owls have seen more polar bears than they had people, so they really don't know what we're about. They're not used to motorized threats, power wires, these sorts of things. And when they do arrive at these southern latitudes, they tend to be really stressed and somewhat emaciated and hungry. And people should not press them either. I really want to stress that. Photographers, avid birders, give the birds a lot of distance, don't disrupt them, cause them to fly, things like that because that's another peril that they face.

BLOCK: For people like myself who might want to try to find one or see one in the next little bit, how long will they be around, and where should we look?

MCCORMAC: Oh, generally, when they do come down like this, they're here for the duration. As a matter of fact, they're still showing up. Every day, there are new reports. Probably, by February's end, you're going to see the owls moving back out because it's going to be time to get back up north.

BLOCK: That's Jim McCormac with Ohio's Division of Wildlife. We were talking about the irruption of snowy owls there and across the country. Jim McCormac, thanks so much and happy owling.

Thank you, Melissa.

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