Famous for its role as Harry Potter’s companion in the books and movies, a species of majestic, mostly white owls is being spotted in large numbers this winter far from both Hogwarts and its native Arctic habitat.
It’s typical for snowy owls to arrive in the United States every three or four winters, but this year’s appearance is widespread, with birders from the Pacific Northwest to New England reporting frequent sightings of the yellow-eyed birds.
The arrival of the birds, which can top two feet in height with a wingspan of nearly five feet, is the result of a large population of Arctic lemmings this summer, which led to a strong breeding season, said Denver Holt of Montan’s Owl Research Institute.
Mouselike animals called lemmings are snowy owls’ main food source, and the baby boom is sending young owls across the border to find voles, field mice, rats, rabbits and shore birds.
Snowy owls are drawn to frozen lakes, which remind them of their home in the Arctic, said Mark Robbins, an ornithologist (bird scientist) with the University of Kansas.
“Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone,” in which a snowy owl named Hedwig first appeared as Harry’s companion, created enormous interest, especially among kids, in the animals. “We were inundated with phone calls from people about all these kids wanting to have pet snowy owls,” Holt said. “It just went crazy for a while there.”
When snowy owls hatch, they have a mix of white and brown feathers. Males, which tend to be smaller, lose their dark feathers and end up white.
Holt said snowy owls are remarkable predators, with flying speeds of nearly 70 miles per hour. Yet despite that diverse diet, it seems that Arctic lemmings are the food source that helps them breed most successfully.
He said this year’s sightings, like the Potter character, helps create interest in the owls, which is great for the species and his research.