The ghostly white bird that yon­der comes

A fluffy visi­tor from the north has cap­tured the state’s imag­i­na­tion.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY CARL SCHWARTZ | PHO­TOS BY JEF­FREY PHELPS

THE SNOWY OWLS are back in force in Wis­con­sin this win­ter.

The ma­jes­tic Arc­tic hunters fly hun­dreds of miles south en masse ev­ery four to five years in poorly un­der­stood events that sci­en­tists call “ir­rup­tions,” and the cur­rent one is shap­ing up to be among the largest ever doc­u­mented in Wis­con­sin. Ryan Brady, bird mon­i­tor­ing co­or­di­na­tor for the state Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, be­lieves roughly 200 dif­fer­ent snowy owls have been spotted across the state, in­clud­ing at least a hand­ful in Mil­wau­kee County.

The big­gest of North Amer­i­can owl species at 3-6 pounds, snowy owls have large yel­low eyes that con­trast strik­ingly with their white plumage. Their good looks – and their pref­er­ence to hunt and be ac­tive dur­ing the day, when they can be seen – cause quite a stir among bird­watch­ers and non-bird­ers alike. (It doesn’t hurt that Hed­wig from the Harry Pot­ter se­ries was a snowy, too.) “In all my time work­ing with birds, no species has res­onated more with the non-bird­ing pub­lic,” Brady says, “even more than ea­gles, cranes and the other white birds.” To sat­isfy that cu­rios­ity, groups like the Wis­con­sin So­ci­ety for Or­nithol­ogy and She­boy­gan County Audubon So­ci­ety are hold­ing field trips so mem­bers and non-bird­ers alike can take a re­spect­ful look.

But there’s also in­ter­est in snowys for weight­ier rea­sons: Bet­ter un­der­stand­ing their ir­rup­tions is im­por­tant be­cause they breed in po­lar re­gions where cli­mate change’s ef­fects are most dra­matic.

There’s dis­agree­ment as to the causes of ir­rup­tions, but many ex­perts be­lieve they’re a re­sponse to booms in the pop­u­la­tion of lem­mings, the ham­ster-like ro­dents that are snowy owls’ pri­mary food source in the Arc­tic. Owl pop­u­la­tions rise as well, and the younger birds spread out by head­ing south. And it’s also now clear that the global snowy owl pop­u­la­tion is much smaller than sci­en­tists once be­lieved – re­cent stud­ies sug­gest it may be as low as 30,000, barely a 10th of past es­ti­mates.

One col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort at un­der­stand­ing the birds and their move­ments is Project SNOW­storm, which tags healthy snowys with cel­lu­lar trans­mit­ters on lit­tle back­packs to track their move­ments in pre­cise de­tail, for years at a time. More than 50 owls have been tagged in 11 states from North Dakota to Maine since 2013, in­clud­ing six in Wis­con­sin. This year, the project aims to tag five more snowys here with the $3,000, ounce-and-a-half trans­mit­ters funded by bird or­ga­ni­za­tions and foun­da­tions in Wis­con­sin.

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