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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

© A snowy owl is a rare sight indeed in summer. © Gerard Fuehrer

June 2003

A far fly from home

Who would have bet on a snowy's chance in summer?

Heide Hughes


A snowy owl is a rare sight indeed in summer.
© Gerard Fuehrer
Snowy owl stats

A little before noon on the Fourth of July, Alice and John Droske of Elk Mound hopped into their Jeep and headed off in no particular direction. It was sunny, 80 degrees and a great day for a ride with the top off. Just west of Eau Claire, Alice spotted something big and white, sitting on a roadside billboard. It was a snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca), not something they expected to see in the middle of summer

The Droskes were hesitant to report it to local birders. After all, if the bird didn't stick around, no one would believe them. As they drove through the same neighborhood later in the month and again in August, the conspicuous Arctic bird was hard to miss.

Finally in mid-September, confident that the owl was going to stay, Alice Droske called Charles Kemper, President of the Chippewa Wildlife Society.

He was skeptical at first. "It's extraordinary to see one this time of year," Kemper said, but he took Alice Droske up on her offer to show him. Sure enough, they found it, perched on a truck trailer parked behind a shop on Highway 12.

No one is certain when the bird arrived, where she came from or why she decided to stay.

It's not unusual to see these "ghosts of the tundra" in Wisconsin between November and March when they range south looking for food, but it is extremely unusual for a snowy to summer in the lower 48 states. Snowy owls have only been recorded in Wisconsin nine times during the past 50 years during summer, said Bob Domagalski of Menomonee Falls, who keeps bird records for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO). Only one bird, spotted on August 17, 1963, "likely stayed the entire summer," he said.

Why this particular owl stayed in Eau Claire is the subject of conjecture.

"She was probably ill or injured earlier in the year, and for whatever reason didn't make it back north," said Janine Polk, a WSO member who lives in Eau Claire.

The bird's age could also be a factor, according to Paul Kerlinger, author of How Birds Migrate. "A number of species fly south and don't fly back north until they are two years old and capable (or almost capable) of nesting," he said. "Not having to migrate back and forth two more times may reduce the risk to a bird, especially if lots of food is available."

Despite an earlier unconfirmed report that two snowy owls had been spotted in the same neighborhood, experts say it was probably not a breeding pair. Snowy owls are not likely to breed or nest in Wisconsin, said Paul Johnsgard, author of North American Owls: Biology and Natural History. Their breeding behavior is triggered by changes in day length. In the Arctic, that peaks with 24 hours of continuous sunshine in June and July. In Wisconsin, we get a maximum of 15 hours, 23 minutes of sunlight on the June solstice, and this photoperiod makes it unlikely that snowy owls would be triggered into breeding behavior.

"The bottom line is that we just don't know why they stayed so far south," said Kerlinger. "Maybe that's why some of us go into biology – to solve some of the little mysteries."

Heide Hughes writes from Nelson.

Snowy owl stats
Size: Snowies are North American owl heavyweights at 3.5 – 4 pounds and their wingspans are up to five feet. Only the great gray owl is taller by about four inches. Female snowy owls are slightly larger and have darker feather patterns.

Plumage: Females and first-year males are white with black barring on the back and underside, tail, wings and top of the head. Adult males have less barring, and some are almost pure white.

Vocalizations: Like most owls that are active during the daytime (diurnal), snowy owls are typically very quiet, except during breeding season. When disturbed, males will call kre, kre, kre in flight.

Diet: Snowy owls eat rodents, waterfowl, rabbits, snowshoe hares, songbirds, fish and carrion.

Range: Their breeding territory is circumpolar. Winter range is south through Canada and the northern half of the United States. Snowy owls are rarely found as far south as Texas, Florida and Bermuda.

Eggs: normally 3-5; when food is abundant 7-11.

Nest: a bare scrape on the ground

Molt: Adults molt their feathers completely, once a year starting in July and ending early October.

Mortality: humans (accidental shootings), collisions (cars, trucks, utility lines and airplanes), electrocution (resting on utility poles), fishing tackle, predation by foxes, wolves, dogs, jaegers (a gull-like seabird), starvation

Migration: Snowies regularly migrate in winter from November through March on the U.S.-Canadian border and south to the Great Plains.

Winter habitat: seacoast, lakeshores, farmland, urban areas near grain elevators, airports and garbage dumps

Life span: in the wild, approximately 10 years; in captivity, approximately 28 years

Status: protected by state and federal law