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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Unlike other owls that prefer to hunt at night, the snowy owl is active in the daytime. © Gerard Fuehrer

December 1997

A hunter in winter white

Don't be fooled by the snowy owl's sleepy looks.

Anita Carpenter

Unlike other owls that prefer to hunt at night, the snowy owl is active in the daytime.

© Gerard Fuehrer

And so we approach my favorite season, where winter blankets field and forest, wrapping the northern landscape in a tranquil snowy coating. Soon the long-tailed weasel (Mustela freneta) will scurry about in a white fur coat. The fleet-footed white snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) will bound through the deep Northwoods powder. And a favorite stand of white birch will arch over a gurgling creek silhouetted against a clear cerulean winter sky. As winter deepens, a majestic white visitor will arrive on silent wings from the arctic, the sleepy-eyed snowy owl, Nyctea scandiaca.

A few snowy owls spend each winter in Wisconsin, usually arriving in mid- November and staying as late as April. They take up temporary residence in areas similar to the treeless expanse of their arctic home. The Superior harbor, bay of Green Bay, the Lake Michigan coast, the Lake Winnebago area, and extensive flat, open fields and marshes are likely places to find these elusive wanderers.

Some years bring more snowies than others. The snowy owl is well-equipped with layers of soft, downy feathers and long hair-like plumage covers and protects their legs and feet against the icy blasts, so it isn't cold weather that brings them south to Wisconsin. Rather, inadequate food supplies as lemming populations dip on the tundra will drive more birds south in these so-called "irruptive" years.

Unlike our resident owls, snowy owls are diurnal, that is, they are active during the day. They generally perch on or near the ground in a hunched-over position unlike the proud upright stance of the more familiar great horned owl (Bubo virginianus). Given their white plumage, snowy owls blend in very well with the wintery background. As you walk near owl country, any basketball-sized white lump on the ground is worth a second look. Sometimes the big birds sit conspicuously on treetops, television antennas or utility poles (which can be dangerous lookouts, indeed).

The perching snowy owl seems docile and deceptively disinterested in its surroundings. Its soulful, lemon-yellow eyes seem only half open, which only enhances its peaceful image. Don't be fooled. The bird is well aware of what is happening around it and reacts very quickly in the presence of a rodent, duck or pigeon meal. These massive birds are truly powerful, fearless predators that sometimes take on prey bigger than themselves.

Snowy owls are the second tallest North American owl at about 23 inches. The great gray owl (Strix nebulosa) is four inches taller, but the snowy is the owl heavyweight tipping the scale at just over 3 pounds. They also have the longest wingspan of the North American owls – about five feet from wingtip to wingtip. The snowy owl's flight is strong, low and direct with alternating deep wingbeats and short glides. A snowy owl flying directly toward you on broad, rounded wings is a very impressive sight.

These owls are strikingly beautiful, almost elegant with their rounded heads and short necks. Adult males have whiter plumage and older males have the whitest plumage of all. The females are a bit larger. Females and immature snowies have more dark barring and spotting on their white feathers. Immature birds tend to migrate farther south than adults, so we are more likely to see the darker-colored birds in Wisconsin.

The snowy owls are silent during their winter stay. They save their calls for the May breeding season back on the tundra where their deep booming hoot "whoooo-whoooo-whooooo-whoooo" must resonate as a haunting sound in those vast, cold, wide-open spaces.

Anita Carpenter takes her winter walks near her home in Oshkosh, Wis.