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Snowy owls pay a visit to Western New York

A few days ago, Chris Hollister, Scott Meier and I pulled up in front of a farm at 1120 Marshall Road in the Town of Yates. The landscape looked like it has for so much of the winter: it was green and brown instead of white.

We were looking for a white bird. We scoped the fields and barns for several minutes before Chris finally found it. Once he did, there was no trouble seeing it because it stood out like white paper against a colored background.

It was an adult snowy owl, full grown because its feathers were completely white. Young birds have dark gray stripes mixed in with the white. Only this bird's staring yellow eyes broke the solid ivory. As I watched, the owl turned its head away in a smooth move that left only white where those eyes had been. It had identified us as a bit large for prey and thus of no interest.

We could see only the owl's head as it sat on the ground behind weeds. It was an impressive bird, nonetheless. Snowies -- birders' affectionate name for them -- are North America's biggest owls. They weigh a third more than great horned owls and nine times more than screech owls. In the open, this bird would stand almost 2 feet high. It is a truly majestic species.

What was this handsome bird doing here, and why was it out in the daytime? That second question is easier to answer than the first. When snowy owls appear far to the south of their normal Canadian range, many are starving and on constant lookout for food. But unlike most owls, they hunt during the daytime.

It is hard to tell when owls are starving by simply looking at them because their fluffed-out feathers camouflage a much smaller body. One snowy owl was found trapped in an abandoned furnace on Seneca Street in Buffalo. It had evidently found its way to the furnace down the chimney. The owl was caught and turned over to the Erie County SPCA. The rehabbers found it emaciated, but the owl died from the rat poison it evidently acquired from eating prey it found there.

The other question, why it's here, is harder to answer. There are two schools. The simplest answer is that in some years, there is simply not enough food in the far north. Their favorite prey, lemmings, go through population cycles and when their population is low, the owls have to move south.

Another answer is almost the opposite. During years of high lemming populations, these owls have larger families. Instead of raising three or four young, they have been known to raise as many as 13. Lots of food equals lots of young. But then some owls are forced out of territories and have to move south to find a hunting area.

Whatever the reason, this is one of those years when a number of snowy owls have moved southward. In fact, this year they are appearing in substantial numbers all across the country. One even made it to the airport in Hawaii where it was promptly shot by federal officials who feared that the bird would interfere with air traffic.

I have learned of eight local reports, most along the waterfront, but one atop a Target store in Depew. The owls tend to stay where they find food, but that Marshall Road bird we saw has recently been found by only about half of the birders who have looked for it there.

These owls are eating whatever they can find. While mice play a prominent role in their diet, they can take much larger prey. One that has been roosting on the Summerville Pier in Rochester was seen to pick off a long-tailed duck from the mouth of the Genesee River. Birders were able to watch the owl feed on the duck, with leftovers lasting to a second day. The owls even occasionally capture and eat fish.

As other bird migrants return to us from the south in March, these visiting snowy owls will head back to the high Arctic tundra.