Few birds in a Minnesota winter are likely to be mistaken for a snowy owl. Standing around 2 feet tall with a wingspan of more than 4 feet, the snowy owl is one of Minnesota’s largest owls, and weighing up to 6½ pounds it’s also our heaviest. Perched in the middle of a snow-covered field, its round head and plump, white body serve as excellent camouflage. Only upon closer study might you discover that what you thought was a lump of snow is staring back at you with two golden-yellow eyes! Adult males can have nearly all-white plumage, whereas females and younger birds are mottled with black spots and bars.
Distribution and Habitat:
Snowy owls are circumpolar breeders, which means they nest throughout the arctic regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. Although some snowy owls remain in the breeding range throughout the year, many wander south each winter, which is when we see them in Minnesota. From about early November through late March, look for snowy owls in large, open areas, especially with short grasses, which more or less resemble the tundra where they breed in summer. Farm fields and airports are good places to look; the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport offers a viewing area from which snowy owls can often be spotted in winter. These owls prefer areas with an abundance of rodents and other small mammals, for which they hunt both during daylight hours and after dark.
Thanks to Harry Potter we know how magical snowy owls are, yet much mystery remains about their lives. Although we see at least a few snowy owls in Minnesota each winter, which may represent truly migratory birds, some winters we find hundreds of them in the state. These mass movements south are called “irruptions” and are thought to be associated with fluctuations in populations of lemmings, the owl’s main prey in the arctic breeding range. Recent irruption years included the winters of 2011–2012 and 2013–2014, when snowy owls were spotted in more than 60 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. Large numbers of snowy owls were found elsewhere in the northern tier of the United States these winters, and individuals were found as far south as Bermuda and Hawaii. Although lemming populations are cyclical and both high and low years of abundance can be predicted with relative certainty, these snowy owl irruptions don’t seem to be following the same cycles. This continues to baffle ornithologists who are studying these phenomena; for more information, check out https://www.projectsnowstorm.org.
Bob Dunlap, DNR zoologist