Daniel Oyinloye of Duluth sent along the photo above of a snowy owl resting on the roof at the Dunham Sports store in the Burning Tree Plaza mall area on Thursday. Snowy owls are more typically found on the tundra of northern Canada, but a few find their way to Duluth or Superior nearly every winter.
David Evans, a local raptor bander, has banded several snowy owls over the years. Some return year after year. They are typically more common in the harbor area or near the Superior airport.
So far this winter, Evans has had five sightings of snowy owls, and at least four of them were different owls, he said. The number that spend winters here varies, but averages about 10 to 15, Evans said.
“Obviously, there’s enough food for them, and they do well enough that individuals do survive these winters,” said Duluth birder and author Laura Erickson.
Last winter, many snowy owls moved south from Canada into the United States, she said.
Evans trapped 20 snowy owls in Duluth and Superior last winter and estimated that 35 to 40 spent time here or moved through, he said.
Snowy owls in the Arctic prey primarily on lemmings, and the lemming population was high the past couple of years. Under those conditions, snowy owls respond by producing more chicks, Erickson said.
“Snowy owls have an extremely variable nest production,” she said. “They might average three chicks. When food is poor, they may have only one or two or even no eggs. When food is abundant, they can produce as many as nine or 10 eggs in a single brood.”
When that happens, not all of the young birds can find winter territories in the Arctic, so some come south. That’s what happened last year, Erickson said. But after years of abundant snowy owl production, the lemming population typically crashes, she said.
“So, the birds coming down this year may be more desperate for food than those in other years,” she said.