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Snowy Owl Invasion

2-4-14 lemmings-at-nest4In a typical winter, sightings of snowy owls are a regular occurrence in the Northeast, but this winter, as most New Englanders are aware of, we’re experiencing a banner irruption year, with individuals appearing in greater numbers from the north than they have in decades. In the past, hunger and lack of prey in the Arctic have been the accepted explanation for this influx of northern predators, but this year that theory has been put to a test, as 2013-14 visitors are arriving in excellent condition. Last summer the lemming population (snowy owls’ food of choice, with one owl eating up to 1,600 lemmings in a year), as well as other prey species, exploded in northern Quebec. It’s thought that snowy owls amass to nest in areas where prey is abundant, and it appears that this is exactly what happened in Quebec. The rodent explosion resulted in exceptionally large broods (up to 12 chicks per pair of owls). In part due to competition with older owls, this large first-year population of owls moved south this winter, and we are the beneficiaries. To see the movement of this year’s irruption, go to, where this photograph of a 70 lemmings/8 voles-lined snowy owl nest by Christine Blais-Soucy originally appeared.

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11 responses

  1. in one of my favotie books, Hugh Nissenson’s The Tree of Life, a classic of lifle on the frontier–then what we now know as the midwest, in the early 19th century, there is a description of just such a nest with the young owls feeding on the handy carrion.

    One of the great pleasures of Naturally Curious is that it can help revive the habit of that was second nature to people of the past, which was to observe their natural environment with careful attention.

    Thank you.

    February 4, 2014 at 1:27 pm

  2. Marilyn

    Those are lemmings, forming a nest??! Are there adult owls in the photo? (Fur and feathers and eggs, oh my!)

    Kate’s post clarifies this a little.

    February 4, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    • It is a photograph of a snowy owl’s nest containing four (I think) eggs surrounded by dead lemmings and voles which will be fed to the owl chicks once the eggs hatch. Amazing, don’t you think?

      February 4, 2014 at 1:44 pm

  3. Lynne

    As you may have heard, a Snowy Owl recently visited Washington DC, becoming an instant celebrity. Unfortunately, it had a collision with a bus last week. Fortunately, it was rescued and is now recuperating at the National Zoo.

    February 4, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    • Oh, I hadn’t heard that it survived–I’m so glad!

      February 4, 2014 at 3:44 pm

  4. Doug Sherry

    Mary, when you say twelve chicks per pair of owls, is that one nesting or multiple? Thanks

    February 4, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    • One nesting. I think the record is 14, but that’s super unusual.

      February 4, 2014 at 9:08 pm

  5. Amy Quinn

    I read the blog that this photo appeared in about a month ago. There are 70 lemmings lining this nest and the chicks have not even hatched yet! That is amazing.

    February 5, 2014 at 12:43 pm

  6. You might enjoy these Snowy Owl photos, taken in January at Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey:

    February 7, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    • Thanks very much — great photos, Mary Anne.

      February 8, 2014 at 2:17 am

  7. Melinda Mull

    I was so excited about the snowy owls that I forwarded the e-mail to my adult children. One of them immediately sent me a snowy owl photo one of his students took (student from a school in Worcester, MA but not sure where the photo taken), and two other children saw them on the North Shore of Boston within a day or two of my communication!

    February 9, 2014 at 1:01 pm

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