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Snowy Owl Way Down South

January 30, 2014
Snowy Owl near Kansas City, Missouri, in 2012.  Photo by Mike Watkins via Wiki Media Commons

Snowy Owl near Kansas City, Missouri, in 2012. Photo by Mike Watkins via Wiki Media Commons

Snowy owls lately have been seen as far south as Florida, which is obviously not the norm for these cold-climate loving birds. We’ve also had a few of them show up in DC and the surrounding suburbs, including one who took up temporary residence in downtown K Street earlier this month, before she moved to nearby McPherson Square. We’ve also had sightings at National Airport (just across the river) and BWI (up near Baltimore). Snowy owls often end up in airports because the open nature of the terrain of airports is more similar to the owls’ natural habitat (tundra) than the forested and built-up areas often found around airports on the East Coast. Owls have run into trouble in airports — earlier this winter, the New York Port Authority came under heavy criticism when it was discovered that they were killing snowy owls (out of concerns over plane safety). In the wake of this criticism, the Port Authority is now trapping and relocating any owls that they find on airport grounds, following the lead of Boston’s Logan Airport, which is more used to dealing with these usually northern residents.

Snowy owls are not your typical urban resident, and they don’t necessarily adjust well to the unique challenges cities pose. Early this morning (around 2am), police officers found a snowy owl near McPherson Square and transported her to the National Zoo; she was apparently hit by a bus. One expert, Ellen  Paul, the executive director of the Ornithological Council, was quoted in an ABC News article as saying she was not surprised by this turn of events: “I was pretty sure this bird was going to end up being hit by a vehicle because what happens when they focus on prey, they literally lock on it like a heat seeking missile,” she said. “And they’re going to go diving directly onto it and not even notice what else is around them.”

So what happens now? The bird was released to City Wildlife, DC’s wildlife rehabilitation center, and is being evaluated for injuries. It looks like she has a head injury, but nothing else is apparent as of yet. The goal will be to release her into the wild as soon as possible, so here’s hoping she makes a speedy recovery.

And why are these owls roaming so far from home? eBird, a joint venture between Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says that this “invasion” is likely the result of an increase in the eastern Arctic snowy owl population, perhaps due to an overabundance of one of their favorite prey items, lemmings (lemmings, as all remember from high school, typically breed in “boom and bust” cycles). When the eating is good, snowy owls will hatch more eggs (up to nine a season), resulting in an increased number of owls growing up in that area. When prey populations go back to normal or take a dive, there are a lot of owls left without a good place to grab a meal, and so they hit the road (so to speak) in search of prey, often flying south or even over water (one owl has been spotted in Bermuda this year!). Be sure to read eBirds excellent article for more information on the invasion, and on snowy owls in general. Also, check out the links to the DCist and Washington Post articles for pictures of the McPherson Square owl.

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