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Why are More Snowy Owls Visiting Pennsylvania?

PHOTO: Snowy Owls are being spotted in larger numbers in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures.

PHOTO: Snowy Owls are being spotted in larger numbers in Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures.


December 4, 2013

PITTSBURGH - If you're fortunate enough to see one in Pennsylvania, it is quite a sight. The snowy owl, with its white feathers and striking yellow eyes, is being spotted in locations statewide.

Some question whether its presence here is an indication of climate change. When this bird doesn't find what it needs in the Arctic regions it hails from, said Brian Shema, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania, it picks up and moves.

"Snowy owls are opportunistic, just like all birds are," he said. "If they find that food is difficult or conditions are difficult for them in their northern territories, they'll certainly move south for a better opportunity to basically stay alive."

Shema said five snowy owls have been spotted lately in Erie County alone. Here, they're likely to feed on rabbits, mice and other prey. They are also a good species for biologists to keep an eye on because, unlike many owls, they are diurnal, or active by day.

The snowy owl's usual source of food is the lemming, a small rodent of the Arctic that many biologists believe could be, like polar bears, a victim of global warming. Shema said birds also can provide valuable information about environmental conditions.

"Some have tried to develop correlations between bird trends and climate change," Shema said, "so certainly we look at birds quite often as kind of 'indicator species' of what's going on out there."

Tom Joseph, Public News Service - PA