Last Friday evening, Campus Security noticed a somewhat unusual visitor outside of the library sitting in one of the trees between the Bald Spot and the Library. Though security occasionally encounters unforgettable strangers who exhibit bizarre or eccentric behavior, this guest was memorable for a different reason. Klay Christianson, the security officer who spotted the visitor, recounted, “It was magnificent, with pure snowy-white wings.”
Yes, this visitor was a Snowy Owl far from its home in the arctic tundra. Snowy Owls are most easily distinguished from other owl species by their appearance. As Christianson described, “It was mostly a pure white color, but it had some dark highlights about the shoulders and face.”
Snowy Owls, sometimes referred to more colorfully as “Ghost Owls” or “Tundra Ghosts,” are one of the largest owls in the world weighing an average of 4 pounds with a wingspan over 5 feet. These birds are mostly diurnal, meaning they are normally active during the day, but will occasionally hunt at night. Snowy Owls prefer open habitat where they sit silently on a low perch waiting for prey to scurry by. In the northern tundra, their diet consists mainly of lemmings, small arctic rodents that are like a Snickers bar to arctic carnivores. In fact, single owl may consume 1600 lemmings in one year! However, when the lemming population crashes Snowy Owl populations head south in search of prey. During these periodic “irruption” years, the owls can be found in fields or other open areas all over the United States hunting mice, voles and other small rodents.
In the past few months, visiting Snowy Owls have been reported from Boston to Seattle to the first ever recorded visit to Hawaii (not to mention quite a few sightings in Minnesota). So whether you are walking across campus or wandering in the Arb, keep your eyes open for a Snowy Owl this winter!
-Jared Beck '14 for the Cole Student Naturalists