Snowy owl returns to Indiana

I hope this is not a sign of things to come, but some snowy owls apparently think Indiana will be able to replace their frozen tundra home for this winter. Extreme cold, heavy snow and lots of small critters to invite for dinner are the usual conditions attractive to this great owl.

Several years ago (2014), there was a large influx of snowy owls into Indiana. That year we had a lot of snow early. Snow blanketed the state, including a shoreline along Lake Michigan where huge sand dunes were covered, mimicking the owl’s natural territory.

At the time, it was thought a scarcity of the owl’s main food source, lemmings, was another reason for their flight southward.

This year, we have little or no snow in most of Indiana. Also, according to DNR biologist Allisyn Gillet, it is not a lack of lemmings but rather a surplus of the small rodents that are the main cause of the southern movement.

The extra food source leads to larger numbers of young owls being raised. This excess amount of birds leads to the adults forcing the younger owls out of their arctic home.

If you have watched a Harry Potter movie, you already know what a snowy owl looks like.

If not, the snowy is the largest species of owl. It can be more than two feet tall and weigh six pounds. That might not sound heavy, but when you consider it’s mostly feathers, it makes a pretty big package.

It has a wingspan of almost five and a half feet. It has a stocky body and a large, round head. Its beak is heavy and black, with a pronounced hook, which is mostly hidden in its feathers.

The male snowy owl is almost pure white except for its beak, black talons — which are almost completely covered with long, hairlike, white plumage — and his eyes.

The owl has bright yellow eyes that can spot prey from great distances. It has night vision as good as most other owls, with much better eyesight during the daylight hours.

The female is larger than the male, and both the female and juvenile birds have a lot of dark marking (barring) on their bodies and wings. Overall, this is one beautiful bird and a highly desired species to be marked off a birdwatcher’s list.

Fortunately for Hoosiers interested in seeing unusual birds, this owl has extended its winter grounds to include the Midwest. A few snowys have even been seen as far south as the Carolinas and Texas in previous years. The Great Lakes and the east coast of the Untied States have experienced a sudden, unexpected increase (irruption) the past few winters.

The big, white bird is lucky that, while Indiana doesn’t have any lemmings, it does have other prey such as mice, voles, rabbits and other small critters for its dining pleasure. (I even read one report that indicated the owl ate moles here in winter. In my many decades as an outdoorsman, I have never seen a mole running around here in the winter.)

According to the Indiana DNR, sightings this year began as early as Nov. 14 in Angola. Ten days later, a snowy owl was reported at the Indianapolis airport. A sighting close to Pendleton occurred on Nov. 30 at Mt. Comfort airport.

Many reports came from the end of November through Dec. 12 along the coast of Lake Michigan. Goose Pond FWA, Rushville, Hancock County and Allen County were also visited by the snowy owl in early December.

The big owl will return to its arctic breeding and nesting grounds in March.

At that time, the female will scrape out a depression in the ground to build her nest.

Both adults will incubate the three to 10 white eggs for about a month. The eggs are laid on different days, so the young birds will hatch at different times. They will stay in the nest for two to three weeks and then begin flying at about six weeks of age.

For your best chance to see a snowy owl in Indiana, go north. The Indiana Dunes and the Lake Michigan shoreline are the best choices, but you may see them anywhere except in the woods.

They hunt during the daytime, unlike other owls.

They usually sit on the ground or on a low stump or post. Watch in large open fields covered with snow. The birds will be hunting in these areas and sometimes will sit on an elevated mound in the field to watch for food.

While you will never see one of these gorgeous birds at your backyard bird feeder, if you can manage a trip along the Lake Michigan shoreline this winter, you might be able to see a snowy owl at a distance.

But please, do not attempt to approach these birds. They are almost all juveniles and already under severe stress because they are trying to adapt to a new environment, find different food and avoid strange predators.

Their survival is threatened by power lines, vehicles and buildings not present in their usual surroundings.

If trying to photograph one of these birds, use a telephoto lens. If the owl appears agitated or flies away, you have approached too close and added to a stress level that could actually threaten the life of a rare snowy owl.

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