This week in nature: Owls fill Blo-No

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Snowy Owls generally prefer to live in the Arctic. But lately they can be seen in McLean County.

By Joe Phipps, Staff Writer

This winter, there has been an invasion of the Midwest. A bird that prefers to spend its life in the arctic, a region where the sun doesn’t set in summer, has come south and is making quite an impression. While many may hope that Illinois’s new visitors are here to deliver them letters, I can promise the recent incursion of the snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) has nothing to do with the fantasies of our childhood. Cold conditions and food scarcities have caused the snowy owl to travel hundreds of miles out of its normal range.

Snowy owls are large white owls with some dark barring (dark bands), distinct yellow eyes and characteristically feathered feet, but juveniles and females are typically more heavily barred with only small amounts of visible white feathers on the body. These Arctic birds typically feed on lemmings and other small mammals but can occasionally eat other small birds and fish

Snowy owls usually inhabit the Arctic tundra in northern Alaska, Canada, and Eurasia, normally coming as far south as the southern portion of Lake Michigan. Only when weather patterns change or prey becomes limited do these birds make their way into the Midwest. With a severe northern winter and shortage of lemmings, the snowy owls have come to our region in surprisingly high numbers.

In early December, Dr. Given Harper, a professor of biology at Illinois Wesleyan University, took several students, myself included, to see a snowy owl here in McLean County. At the time he said, “This is the first snowy owl spotted [in McLean County] in the last two or three years.”

Since then, there have been several more owls spotted in the county and this last month there was even an owl seen on the grounds of the Bloomington Regional Airport.

For any who are interested in finding such an interesting creature, they only need a time and a push in the right direction. Because adult snowy owls eat between three and five lemmings a day, they are constantly on the hunt, even during the day since the sun doesn’t always set in the Arctic. While they will perch almost anywhere to look for prey, they often take advantage of Illinois’s high utility poles when looking for voles and mice, a substitute for their normal diet.

With a free afternoon, a few tentative eyes and an idea of where the last owls have been spotted, anyone can set out on an adventure to find one of these birds perched, scanning the vast corn fields.

These majestic visitors aren’t going to stay forever, but it seems to me that they have made their presence known just enough to make a lasting impression on anyone who sees them.

I hope these interesting and beautiful birds can help to change the heart of even one person who is doubtful of the importance of wildlife. Perhaps if you get lucky, even if you don’t get your long awaited acceptance letter, you will see one of these beautiful animals before they are gone.