“The size of the snowy owl population increases during the lemming boom. The following year, with more owls, the lemming population declines.
“If the lemming crash is small, the subordinate birds are forced to look south for food.” They are usually young males, who are shorter than their female counterparts. “If the lemming crash is large, all the young are forced down, including the females.” In larger crashes, adults also head south.
The recent lemming population crash has contributed to a memorable winter for Indiana owl enthusiasts. “There was a period around New Years where we had a few Snowy Owls within 15 miles of Lafayette. Other Snowy Owls were reported in various locations across the state.
In Indiana, owls feed primarily on mice and voles. Unfortunately, hunting in unfamiliar territory can be dangerous. “One of the most productive places to hunt voles is in the grass of rights-of-way and medians near highways. When fenced, areas can support large populations of prey because the barriers keep coyotes, foxes, and feral cats out.
Originating in the Arctic, Snowy Owls have little experience with vehicles. “A large percentage of owls that get this far end up being run over by cars.”
Hunting in the dark, when mice and voles are most active, is another adjustment for owls. During the breeding season in the Arctic, the days have 24 hours of sunshine.
Although their adaptability is a lesser-known attribute, the reputational wisdom of owls is overrated. “The idea that owls are intelligent goes back to the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, but it’s not related to anything particularly intelligent that owls do. Crows and ravens would score higher than owls in a test measuring intelligence or problem-solving skills.