Northeast States See Large Influx of Snowy Owls this Winter
An unusually large number of snowy owls has descended upon the northeastern US this winter, flying in from their usual Arctic tundra habitat in search of prey in what may be the largest influx of the birds in the past half century.
Hundreds of snowy owls have flown in for the winter, with reports of the great white birds' presence in places as unlikely as North Carolina and Bermuda, according to the Audubon Society.
"Basically, they are just everywhere," Patrick M. Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, the state office of the National Audubon Society, told The Hartford Courant.
Southern New England, farther south into New York - and especially Bermuda - is out of the snowy owls' typical winter range. A lack of food sources in the Arctic and the southern Canadian provinces may have led the owls south, where the lemmings and voles they typically prey upon may be more abundant this year.
Chris Elphick, an ornithologist and associate professor in the University of Connecticut's department of ecology and evolutionary biology, told The Hartford Courant that extreme weather conditions in the Arctic this summer may have killed off the snowy owls' prey, which caused them to seek prey in new environments. Snowy owls maintain territory by seniority, so younger owls are forced to seek food in new places when older owls have established dominance in a particular area.
"If you are young, you go to where it is easier to find food," Elphick told the Courant.
Airports around the Northeast have been dealing with snowy owls on their runways. The birds prefer undisturbed, wide open areas, and airports are often the first choice of the owls when they are in areas otherwise overtaken by widespread commercial development.
"Airports provide the most similar habitat that these owls can find to where they want to be," according to eBird.org. "And it's not just owls - many grassland species in the Northeast are best found at airports, including Upland Sandpipers, Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, and American Kestrels. All of these are in serious declines."
New York's JFK International Airport was hit with criticism in December after reports of snowy owls being shot on airport grounds. Following the criticism, however, JFK, along with the region's other major airports, stated that they would instead attempt to trap and release the snowy owls in more suitable locations.
Snowy owl populations are declining worldwide, but according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the overall population size of snowy owls is very large and its decline is not significant enough to list the species as vulnerable. The snowy owl (Bubo scandiaca) is listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List.