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Most people likely have only ever seen a snowy owl up close in Harry Potter movies. But this winter, several of the white birds have been spotted in the Ozarks and elsewhere in the state.
Brad Jacobs, ornithologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, says the reason is lack of food where they normally live in the Arctic. He says lemmings are their main food source and about every four years in the Arctic the rodent population crashes. When that happens, the birds move south until they find food. He says probably about 95% of the birds that are in Missouri now are immature snowy owls.
But, while they came here to find food, they apparently aren’t having much luck…
"They were starving up there, they're flying down here, and we don't have probably as many rodents around as they need. They're gotten emaciated on the way down, so, some of the birds that are found, there's no meat on the sternum at all, on the breast bone. They're consumed, basically, all their muscles in getting here."
And, unlike in the Arctic, there are vehicles here, which the owls aren’t used to, so some have been found dead on roadways…
"They've never seen a car. They have no idea what a car is so they sit in the road and they watch it come until it mows them down, so we're trying to get the word out to people that, if you see a big white thing in the road in front of you, please slow down. You know, it may be a big white trash bag, but it may be snowy owl."
A snowy owl was found dead—hit by a car—near Monett.
Jacobs is still sifting through lots of e-mails he’s received since late November, some of which might contain information about snowy owl sightings, so he doesn’t know exactly how many of the birds have been seen in Missouri this winter. But he estimates it’s less than 100 and more than 20.
You might be thinking, “where do I go to see one?”
"They seem to be gathering in very open land--grasslands, agricultural land, flood plains of rivers more so than elsewhere."
Some places you might spot one include the dam on Smithville Lake north of Kansas City—up to five have been seen there. And there have been three spotted at Fortescue, a small town west of Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge in Holt County.
If you see a snowy owl, the Missouri Department of Conservation wants to know about it. They hope to learn a lot about them as they work with biologists at the University of Kansas…
"They have a laboratory over there where they can do tissue samples, prepare tissue samples for cryogenic freezing, so we can use this--it's an opportunity. You don't get to have this many birds coming down, so we're trying to figure out what are the ages, what are the sexes? and keep tissue samples for hundreds of years so that other people can access this over the next century or so."
To report the sighting of a snowy owl, call your local Conservation Department office or Conservation Nature Center or e-mail Jacobs at brad [dot] jacobs [at] mdc [dot] mo [dot] gov. If you have a picture, send that, too.
If you find a dead snowy owl, call the local Conservation Department or Nature Center to report your discovery to an agent.
For KSMU News, I’m Michele Skalicky.