Klemek's Minnesota Outdoors: Snowy Owl

Blane Klemek

I spent the New Year in the Red River valley driving from Moorhead to Alvarado. I stopped at numerous towns along the way—Ada, Hendrum, Climax, Crookston, and East Grand Forks and Grand Forks. And in between all these towns were the wide open spaces of farmland, prairie, and river bottoms.

Crossing such rivers such as the Wild Rice, Snake, Red Lake River, and the Red River of the North, I observed herds of white-tailed deer taking refuge from the severe cold within tangles of trees and brush. And with the exception of one special species of wild bird, the only other birds that I observed across the windswept snowdrifts of the vast landscape were flocks of snow buntings.

And what was that lone avian exception? None other than a snowy owl.

Traveling west of Ada on Highway 200, I easily spotted the owl perched on top of a utility pole adjacent to the highway. Had the bird instead been perched on a snowdrift I likely wouldn’t have noticed it, but as it was the white owl speckled in black stood out like a sore thumb.

Speeding by in my truck, I immediately slowed down, turned around and drove back to the owl’s perch-pole to get a closer look. But alas, the beautiful bird wasn’t interested in giving me a better look through my binoculars and camera lens. Off it flew on long broad wings across the snow-covered field and soon disappeared out of sight.

It’s no wonder snowy owls occasionally trickle down from their northerly range to places like northwest Minnesota. The landscape and weather of the valley can be very Arctic-like, as indeed it was on New Year’s weekend. This hardy owl is a bird of extreme climate, subzero temperatures and unbearable wind chills.

The snowy owl I observed on Jan. 1 was either a mature female or juvenile bird. The black barring throughout much of its body is a diagnostic feature that distinguishes adult females/immatures from mature males, which are almost always pure white in color with little if any black/brown feathers. No matter the color pattern, snowy owls of both sexes and age are perfectly adapted to harsh and snowy environments.

Snowy owls are big birds with rounded heads and no feathered “ear” tufts. With a body length of over two feet, a weight of up to around six to seven pounds, and a wingspan of nearly five feet, snowy owls with their bright yellow eyes are impressive looking birds.

Breeding in the high Arctic tundra, northern Minnesota is nonetheless considered winter range for snowy owls. Even so, observing this somewhat rare-for-Minnesota bird is still considered a treat for any and all lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one.

The diet of snowy owls is almost exclusively small mammals, especially throughout its breeding range where lemmings are generally the most common species of rodent. Other prey include various species of mice and voles, squirrels, weasels, and rabbits and hares. Even other species of birds are on the menu, some as large as geese.

Typical of snowy owls whenever and wherever they’re spotted, is their preference for sitting in one place for long periods of time. Had I not come along when I did and turned around to get another look at the owl I observed, it probably would’ve remained perched on the utility pole for much longer. Snowy owls prefer finding high places where they can better view their surroundings as they search and listen intently for prey.

Unfortunately, it is believed that the snowy owl global population is declining. Although difficult to estimate the actual population due to the species’ large territories, vast range, and unpredictable migrations, some 200,000 birds are thought to exist worldwide, which isn’t all that many. Yet what the snowy owl may lack in numbers might not be that critical considering the remoteness of the species’ preferred Arctic habitat.

There have only been a handful of times in my life that I’ve had the fortune of seeing a snowy owl, and each time it has been in isolated places throughout northwest Minnesota. These large and gorgeous snow-white owls, winter residents at that, enthralls us all as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Outdoors Columnist Blane Klemek