Native to the high Arctic tundra and northernmost stretches of Alaska, Northern Canada, and Eurasia, record-breaking populations of migrating Snowy Owls have taken refuge across the state of Missouri.
The region combines spectacular scenery and diverse habitats for migrating Snowy Owls, from rolling hills and lush meadows to forested slopes and ancient mountain peaks. These nomadic birds prefer treeless and wide-open spaces, making Missouri’s vast stretches of rolling terrain and open pasture optimal for hunting. Although, well-adapted for life north of the Arctic Circle, and colored for camouflage during northern winters, migrating Snowy Owls rarely make an appearance in the Midwest.
The sudden rise in numbers signifies a food shortage in the arctic range, Snowy Owls last appeared in Missouri and Kansas in noticeable numbers during the winter of 2011-2012.
“This is an irruption likely tied to a drop in the lemming population in the Arctic this summer and fall,” said Mark Robbins, an ornithologist at the University of Kansas who also works with Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in Missouri.
“In their arctic habitat, they forage in grasslands and tundra for lemmings, ptarmigan, and waterfowl. They rely especially on lemmings, and when populations of those rodents are high, snowy owl populations rise. When lemming populations crash, the owls move south in search of prey.” – Missouri Dept. of Conservation
If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of these beautiful birds while they are migrating, Snowy Owls prefer extensive agriculture fields and terrain devoid of trees which closely resemble the Arctic tundra they are accustomed to. They can be 20-25 inches long with wingspans of 4 1/2 to 5 feet. Many juvenile birds have a darker coloring and may look even blackish. The Snowy Owl is a patient hunter that perches and waits to identify its prey before soaring off in pursuit, so they are commonly seen perched on high points such as fences, telephone poles, and the tops of buildings.