A young female snowy owl hops away from curious people who were getting too close in Missouri. (AP)

A young female snowy owl hops away from curious people who were getting too close in Missouri. (AP)

Huge numbers of snowy owls migrated from the Arctic to the northern U.S. in December, 2017. (AP)

Huge numbers of snowy owls migrated from the Arctic to the northern U.S. in December, 2017. (AP)

A young snowy owl swoops over water in Missouri. The raptor is one of many snowy owls in a rare irruption. (AP)

A young snowy owl swoops over water in Missouri. The raptor is one of many snowy owls in a rare irruption. (AP)

Migration Vacation

Posted: March 5, 2018

Snowy owls are nomads. That means they stay in one place for only a short amount of time. At their nesting grounds in the tundra—the flat, treeless Arctic region—they eat three to five lemmings each day. That adds up to about 1,600 per year. (Owlets dine on the boneless bits.) In years with few lemmings, snowy owls also devour fish, rabbits, and birds. Unlike other owls, they stay awake to hunt during the long, Arctic daytime. And any creature coming near a snowy owl’s nest will probably regret it. These powerful birds are fighters!

But things get complicated—and dangerous—during snowy owls’ migratory “vacations.” Most of the traveling owls are young. They have spent their whole lives on flat, icy land. They have never seen trees, people, or cars. At first, they don’t seem to mind the company of humans at all. But that’s not because the owls are tame. It’s because they don’t know better. Over time, owls realize they don’t appreciate researchers fitting them with trackers—or bystanders coming close enough to take selfies during owl naptime. As the owls grow older, they grow shier too.

Migrating owls are drawn to flat, treeless places that remind them of home—especially airports. They don’t know that they should steer clear of blasting jet engines and planes taking off. Researchers find snowy owls at spots like these. They capture them, fit them with trackers, and release them somewhere safe.

Here’s the good part of the deal for owls on vacation. They can eat a whole lot more than the usual lemming buffet. They outfly other birds and easily break the bones of prey. Their travel menu includes everything from loons and Canada geese to housecats and dead dolphins!