Perhaps you've been one of the Nebraskans lucky enough to see a snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca) this winter. According to Joel Jorgenson of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 65 were sighted in Nebraska as of early January. Snowy owls are an unusual sight in our area. What brought them here this winter was a crash in the lemming population in the arctic.
The lemming, a mouse-like creature, is the main diet for a snowy owl. According to National Geographic, an adult snowy owl will eat 3 to 5 lemmings a day. That could be over 1,400 lemmings a year! Since the lemming population is low this year, snowy owls have traveled south in search of other food. They will eat rabbits, birds, fish, and other small rodents, in addition to lemmings.
Snowy Owl photographed by Galen Truan, Lincoln, NE December 2011.The snowy owl is one of the few owls that is active during the day. They fly close to the ground, and perch on short posts or the ground, watching and listening for food. Snowy owls usually mate for life, and females lay 3 to 11 eggs in nests on the ground. They have the higher number of eggs when food is plentiful. During times of lemming shortages, some pairs will not breed.
The female stays on the nest, keeping the eggs warm until they hatch - usually about a month. The male brings her food during the incubation period. The owlets can fly well by the time they're 1 ½ months, but their parents will care for them an additional 2 ½ months or more.
A snowy owl is a bird you are not likely to forget once you've seen one. An adult may have a wingspan of almost 5 feet and stand about 2 ½ feet tall. They have black beaks, yellow eyes, and feathered legs and feet for cold protection.