This Years Snowy Owl Invasion Was Good News For Scientists

Credit Meredith Rizzo/NPR

Dave Brinker and Veteranarian Cindy Driscoll adjust the GPS backpack on Hungerford, the 15th snowy owl tagged during the irruption of 2013-2014. Credit Meredith Rizzo/NPR

Adam Cole | MARCH 11, 2014 | Milwauki Public Radio – This is Hungerford, a large female snowy owl. Last summer she was just a hatchling — a gray ball of fuzz in the middle of the arctic tundra. In the fall, she flew thousands of miles south until she reached an island off the coast of Maryland called Assateague. And this winter, she became an important part of an unprecedented research project.

“Something Huge Is Going On”
Snowy owls are the some of the largest birds in North America, but scientists know very little about their behavior. The owls spend most of their days far from humans, hunting rodents and birds in the flat expanses of the arctic circle. In the winter the owls shift south, but they don’t usually reach United States. Most years, only a few are spotted in the northernmost states — an rare treat for birders. But this year was different.

Owls started to appear all over the United States right around Thanksgiving — in Nebraska, in Kentucky — even as far south as Georgia. Dave Brinker, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, was shocked when he saw not one but two snowy owls on the dunes of Assateague Island.

“Something huge is going on,” Brinker told his colleagues. “We won’t see something like this for a long time — probably for the rest of our lifetimes.”

This rapid population boom — called an “irruption” by ecologists — is the largest the East Coast has seen in forty or fifty years.

The Trigger (Lemmings!)
So what caused the irruption? This picture tells the story:

It shows a snowy owl’s nest that was photographed by biologists last summer in northern Quebec. Those furry lumps are the carcasses of 70 lemmings. Lemmings — small, hamster-like rodents — are the main source of food for snowy owls in the arctic. Thanks to the abundance of lemmings last summer, well-fed mother owls laid more eggs, and huge numbers of owlets grew up fat and strong. Come winter, they spread far to the south.
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