By Dr. Becker
In a true mystery of nature, thousands of snowy owls are migrating into and across the U.S from their Arctic home this winter.
The snow-white owls have been spotted from the east coast to the west, in states as far flung as Idaho, Massachusetts, Montana and Missouri, and as far south as Oklahoma.
A certain number of owls always fly south from their Arctic home during winter months, but for so many to travel so far is extraordinary.
According to Denver Holt of Montana's Owl Research Institute, who has studied snowy owls in the Arctic for 20 years, "What we're seeing now -- it's unbelievable. This is the most significant wildlife event in decades."
First Came an Abundance of Food ... Then Not Enough
Snowy owls are birds of prey that feed on a wide variety of small animals and fowl.
However their main food staple during mating season is the lemming, a rodent.
According to Holt and other owl experts, lemmings were especially plentiful last season.
This may have resulted in a higher than normal owl birth rate -- perhaps up to seven baby owls per breeding pair when the usual maximum number is just two.
More owls means increased competition for food in their natural Arctic habitat. It's thought many of the younger males were forced to travel much farther south than normal in search of a food supply.
And while human bird watchers are thrilled to see an Arctic snowy owl on a neighbor's rooftop or gliding over a city park, there is a distressing side to the migration as well.
People have reported seeing emaciated owls in some locations, as well as at least one that died of starvation. And in a heartbreaking turn of events, an owl that landed at an airport in Hawaii was shot and killed to avoid a potential collision with aircraft.
Snowy Owls are Dominant Raptors, but Populations are in Decline
Unfortunately, due to the remote and harsh conditions of the owls' home turf, research on these beautiful creatures is extremely limited.
These owls have yellow eyes and black bills. They grow to around two feet in length, with wingspans of up to five feet, and weigh anywhere between 3.5 and 6 pounds.
The snowy owl is one of the largest species of owls and is on average the heaviest owl in North America.
Adult males are pure white. Females and youngsters have dark scalloping. Young birds are also heavily barred and may have marked dark spotting.
The owls' plumage is thick and the taloned feet are heavily feathered.
Snowy owls have few predators and are usually dominant over other raptors.
Snowy owl populations are thought to be in decline, probably due to a dwindling food supply for lemmings, which account for about 90 percent of the owls' diet during mating season.
The following short video from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology contains several stunning close-ups of these magnificent birds of prey.