For snowy owls, wintering on the prairie might be normal

Snowy owl in flight

Some snowy owls leave the Arctic to fly south for the winter. That may be a normal part of their migration pattern, a new study finds. 

Maya Haga

White, fierce and fluffy, snowy owls are icons of Arctic life. But some of these owls are not cool with polar winters.

Every year, part of the population flies south to North American prairies. Ornithologists thought those birds fled the Arctic in desperation, haggard and hungry. But the prairie owls are doing just fine, researchers report August 31 in The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

Over 18 winters, wild snowy owls caught and banded in Saskatchewan, Canada — one of the species’ southerly destinations­­ — were 73 percent heavier than emaciated owls in rescue shelters. Females were heavier and had more fat than males, and adults were in better condition than youngsters. But regardless of age or sex, most snowy owls that made the journey south were in relatively good health.

That means southern winters may not be such a desperate move after all. Prairies are probably just a normal wintering ground for some of the Arctic snowy owl population, the researchers say. Snowbirds, indeed. 

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