Rare snowy owls spotted in Missouri

Photo Credit: Courtesy: MO Dept. of Conservation

Birdwatchers are reporting a rare sight in western Missouri, snowy owls.

Their native habitat is the Arctic tundra, but they are being spotted in the Midwest this winter in uncommonly large numbers, including three at Smithville Lake in the Kansas City area.

The large, white owls with black markings are rarely seen in this area and only when their winter food supply is short in their natural habitats to the north. A single snowy owl in the region is big news to birders.

But the migration is not such good news for the birds.

Mark Robbins is an ornithologist at the University of Kansas who also does bird studies in Missouri. He says when the snowy owls are seen this far south, it's because of a decline in lemmings, their main food source. Lemming populations rise and fall in three- to five-year cycles.

He says many of the birds seen in the region likely will not survive.

The Lawrence Journal-World reports that Robbins estimated between 10 and 15 snowy owls have been seen in Kansas and 10 to 12 in Missouri.

The Missouri Department of Conservation is urging bird watchers to take photographs of the snowy owls and send them to Robbins via e-mail at

If possible, take close photographs of the back, the nape and the back of the head, and the tail. With good photos, Robbins is able to identify the sex and age of a snowy owl. Also send information on when and where the owl was spotted.

The department adds, the trek south is especially rough on young owls who arrive starved and weak. They are used to a solitary life on the tundra with few humans and other natural predators, and they are not used to avoiding automobile traffic. The owls are also not accustomed to hunting prey in this ecosystem.

Anyone finding a dead snowy owl is asked to contact their local conservation agent.