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Snowy Owls Find Their Way to Cape Cod

Dear Bird Folks,

While walking on Nauset Beach, in Orleans (MA) this past weekend we came upon a beautiful Snowy Owl. I’ve attached a photo, but I don’t know if you can actually see the bird. Unfortunately, my camera isn’t the best. (The bird is there somewhere, I promise.) My question is: why would a bird from the Arctic be sitting on a Cape Cod beach? And don’t tell me it is trying to get a tan.

– Christina, Bristol, CT


Good one, Christina,

I never thought about a Snowy Owl sitting on a beach just to get a tan, but I’m glad you did. I like it. It’s much better than the answer I was going to give you. The truth is Snowy Owls try to avoid getting tans. They know that too much sun exposure is a bad thing. That’s why they start each day by rubbing on a healthy dose of sunscreen, usually SPF 30. There once was a time when owls also protected their eyes from the blinding sun by wearing sunglasses, but then they couldn’t recognize each other. This caused a drop in their breeding success, so that practice was abandoned. Now they just squint. It gets the job done, but they don’t look as cool.

Every few weeks we write about an unusual bird that many readers have never seen…and most don’t care if they ever do. This is not the case with the Snowy Owl. While lots of folks haven’t seen one, I’m sure they would love to. Well, now here’s their chance. About once a decade or so, large numbers of Snowy Owls leave the comfort of the frigid, frozen tundra and wander south. This winter snowies are being seen throughout the country. Hundreds of white owls have been reported from New Jersey to Oregon and nearly as far south as Wichita, KS. Really. Wichita. Even Cape Cod is getting its share. Like you, Christina, lots of other folks are having owl encounters on Nauset Beach, where the birds hunt, rest and try to avoid getting a tan.

Why so many owls this year? Well, the Mayans might suggest that the owl invasion is just another sign that the world is about to end. (I don’t know about that. I’m going to put that theory in the “maybe” pile.) Most researchers believe an abundance of owls has to with a lack of food up north. Like many Arctic predators, the Snowy Owls diet depends heavily upon cute little lemmings. It’s pretty boring where lemmings live, so to help pass the time they do a lot of breeding. Some years the Arctic is knee-deep in lemmings. But occasionally, either because of the bad economy or they just aren’t in the mood, the lemmings take a break from the constant breeding and their population plummets. The predators hate those years.

It was first thought Snowy Owls moved south whenever the lemming population crashed. But now many think the snowies’ southerly migrations are the result of a lemming population explosion. Huh? Does that make any sense? Well, kind of. Whenever there are plenty of lemmings to go around, the owls produce extra owlets. During lean years a female owl may only lay three eggs or fewer. But when prey is abundant, she may lay ten eggs or more. At the end of one of these banner summers the Arctic is covered with brand new Snowy Owls. With so many hungry owls around food can quickly become scarce. Scores of birds are forced to head south in search of a better life, which apparently can be found on Cape Cod and in Wichita.

I’m not sure exactly how many snowies are on the Cape right now, but we know that at least two different owls have spent the past few weeks on Nauset Beach. How do we know there are two different owls and not the same owl seen twice? From photos people have sent in. (No, not from your photo, Christina.) Judging from the snapshots there are clearly two different birds out there. One bird is extremely white; another is very dark. How can an owl be dark and still be a snowy? Read on.

The stereotypical plumage of a Snowy Owl is mostly snow white, hence the name. However, only the adult males have this ghostly appearance. The plumage on the young birds and females is also white but it is covered in speckles and dark barring. An adult male looks like it was molded out of freshly fallen snow, while the young birds and the females look like they were made from old snow found in the parking lot of a crowded mall.

I’m glad you got to see a Snowy Owl, Christina. Please don’t feel bad about the owl in your photo being small. I could see the bird…I think. (Either that or I was looking at a piece of lint.) Even though the winter of 2011/2012 is turning out to be a good year for Snowy Owl sightings, it doesn’t mean they’ll be easy to find. These are not backyard birds we are talking about. Snowies live in the open tundra and typically choose similar habitat on their winter visits. Coast Guard, Nauset and Chatham Light Beaches must remind them of home because they’ve all had snowy sightings this winter. If you’ve ever wanted to see one of these handsome birds, now would be a good time to look for one, or two. Keep in mind you aren’t likely to see an owl without making some effort. Just sitting in the car and looking from a beach parking lot won’t get it done. Seeing a Snowy Owl takes a little luck and a lot of walking. This is not a bird for lazy people. Which explains why I haven’t seen one yet.