A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Gayle Pille: Best Christmas present ever — just in time for the holidays, snowstorm of Snowy Owls

A Snowy Owl showed up about an hour away at one of Ohio’s fantastic state parks. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to see a bird that normally lives on the Arctic tundra.

These Arctic interlopers have been winging their way south into the lower 48 recently.


Snowy Owl (Photo by Harry Nieman)

On average, lemming populations crash on the tundra about every four years. Lemmings (small rodents) are a Snowy Owls favorite food. When these rodent populations do crash, the birds have no choice but to look for food elsewhere. And they will fly long distances searching.

These periodic southward movements, called irruptions, give us rare opportunities to see these otherwise elusive birds. This year, so far, Snowy Owls have been found as far south as Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Unlike other owls, Snowy Owls will hunt day or night. They are “sit and wait” hunters, spending much of their time perched and still on prominent lookouts. Under normal hunting conditions on the tundra, they will eat up to six lemmings per day.

However, when they move south just about any small bird or mammal is fair game.

Snowy Owls have a circumpolar distribution across the Northern Hemisphere and are most frequently found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia. No other owl in North America lives as far north as the Snowy.

Since they are birds of the tundra where trees are far and few, Snowy Owls don’t have the nesting opportunities our owls have with our plentiful trees. A Snowy’s nest is simply a scrape in the ground atop an elevated rise or mound.

Photo by Mike Hollan

Nest sites must be snow-free, near good hunting grounds, and command a good view of surroundings. When lemmings are abundant, clutch sizes can be up to 9 eggs. Otherwise, Snowy’s will lay anywhere from three to four eggs.

Nest success is totally dependent on the availability of lemmings. When lemmings are plentiful, nests can be nearly 100% successful. Conversely, when lemming populations crash, Snowy Owl nests can fail miserably. Snowy’s are fearless protectors of their young and will even attack wolves that approach their nest sites.

Snowy Owls are long-lived birds with a lifespan of 10 years or longer. Males and females are easily distinguishable. The whitest birds are always males. In fact, older males can be almost completely white. Females and immature birds are heavily barred or scalloped. As with other birds of prey, females are always larger than males.

No other owl is as striking or beautiful as is the Snowy Owl. To see one is truly one of life’s great experiences. So if a Snowy Owl is on your Christmas list (or bucket list), now may be just the time to see one.

Let it snow!

In flight (Photo by Judy Hollan)

Photo by Judy Hollan


Gayle Pille is a local naturalist and nature writer who many know through her work to establish the five-mile network of nature trails at Highland Cemetery in Ft. Mitchell. She created the cemetery’s popular 25-year-old Wildlife Enhancement Program and works with a small team of volunteers to maintain the cemetery’s wooded walking paths. An avid birdwatcher, Gayle also builds custom wildlife nest boxes for businesses, parks and residences through her business, www.woodlandhabitat.com

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  1. Shelly Sandfoss says:

    Gayle, I always jump at the chance to read your articles. Looking to the day when I too spot a Snowy Owl.

  2. Perry Ralenkotter says:

    Great article Gayle!

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