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Spotted: A snowy owl at D.C.’s Union Station, where it’s eating pigeons and rats

‘She’s doing marvelously, and she’s doing us a favor with the rats,’ a wildlife expert said

A snowy owl perches outside Union Station last week. The bird has been spotted at several places in D.C. (Matt Felperin)
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A previous version of this article incorrectly said that a female snowy owl is called a hedwig. There is no specific term for a female snowy owl. The article has been corrected.

She took a pit stop at one of D.C.’s busiest spots and found meals appetizing to her — rats and pigeons.

So was the journey of an immature female snowy owl, says a naturalist expert who spotted it Thursday night atop a statue outside Union Station.

The snowy owl has been using the station as its “nightly hunting grounds,” according to Matt Felperin, a roving naturalist for Nova Parks in Northern Virginia.

It’s the same snowy owl spotted in late December in D.C. and has been seen in the past few weeks at other spots in the city, including near the National Mall and at Reagan National Airport, according to several birders and wildlife experts. It also reportedly has been seen on the roof of a house in the area and atop a church.

Rare owl rescued in Northern Virginia; snowy owl seen in D.C.

Felperin said snowy owls like “big, open areas because they spend most of their time in the Arctic tundra where they scan for prey from a mound of snow.” They leave that area in the winter and head to farms or beach areas. At the beach, he said, they are often seen on top of sand dunes, scanning for prey.

It’s not too common to see snowy owls in the D.C. area, Felperin said. They usually head to the New England area in winter and have sometimes been seen at Assateague Island’s state park in Maryland.

Felperin said the snowy owl was probably attracted to the airport because its open areas and landing grounds make it easy to spot prey.

At Union Station, Felperin said, the snowy owl — possibly about a year old — is “killing it,” getting rats and pigeons.

“She’s doing marvelously, and she’s doing us a favor with the rats,” Felperin said.

The same snowy owl was seen in December just north of the McMillan Reservoir near MedStar Washington Hospital Center in D.C., according to Dan Rauch, a wildlife biologist for the District.

The snowy owl’s presence is part of what wildlife experts call an “irruption” — a temporary influx of a species in an area where it doesn’t normally live. According to Rauch, the last irruption of snowy owls in the D.C. area was in 2014, when at least four were reported. And in 2018, two snowy owls were seen near the National Mall at an Agriculture Department building.

Experts said snowy owl irruptions usually happen every four to five years, when the birds tend to migrate farther south than normal after a jump in population.

The peregrine falcon mostly disappeared. A lone chick took flight at Harpers Ferry for the first time in 70 years.

Felperin said he is worried that the snowy owl will get hit by a vehicle or eat a rat that has been poisoned and absorb the toxin if it stays in the area a long time.

Wildlife experts advised people in the D.C. region to give the bird plenty of space and not use a flash in photos. Also, don’t try to feed it or get a selfie.

Two snowy owls have taken up residence near the Mall

Felperin said the snowy owl won’t stay in the D.C. area beyond March.

With a wing span of roughly 50 inches, it is a “majestic bird,” Felperin said.

“She’s not stuck,” he said. “She’s doing just fine.”