Rare Snowy Owl Spotted Several Times in Washington D.C. in the Last Few Weeks

by Jon D. B.
(Photo by Nathaniel Grann / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

PHOTOS: See the snowy owl bringing a spark of hope to Washington D.C. as the rare raptor lands atop iconic capital locations.

From birdwatchers to politicians, D.C. is out in droves to catch a glimpse of a snow-white rarity: a wayward snowy owl. Typically a Canadian breeder, snowy owls are a remarkably rare sight so far south. But with January 3rd’s 8-inches of snow came this northern companion.

In the days since, the beautiful bird of prey (a female judging by the heavy concentration of black spots) has been touring the U.S. Capital. Photographs show her perched atop Union Station, the National Postal Museum, and several U.S. Senate buildings.

So what’s this snow-white beauty doing in D.C.? Scott Weidensaul, a researcher at nonprofit Project SNOWStorm, tells Associated Press that she may be part of a usual spike in southern migrating snowy owls that chase another spike in the population of lemmings; the species’ main food source. During these spikes, Weidensaul says the owl chick survival rate also rises per an abundance of food. In turn, more snowies choose to follow the lemmings south of their Arctic homes.

“Snowy owls are coming from a part of the world where they see almost nothing human, from completely treeless open Arctic tundra,” Weidensaul says. But in these spike or “irruption years,” they tend to go farther south than usual. “A lot of the snowy owls we’re seeing now in the East and Upper Midwest are young birds, on their first migration,” he explains.

Washington D.C. Has Rats a’Plenty for Wayward Snowy Owl

And as city-dwelling humans know, our presence means scavenging rodents such as mice and rats in abundance. Bird watchers are noting the snowy owl’s penchant for targeting D.C.’s abundant downtown pests.

As she does, the owl is delighting city-goers as she continues to tour Capitol Hill. Many of her on-lookers are seasoned D.C. birdwatchers. But a few, like Jacques Pitteloud, hold high stations in the capital. Pitteloud is the Swiss Ambassador to the U.S., and this is the first snowy owl he’s ever seen in person; something that makes him a “lifter” by birdwatcher standards, he says.

But her presence offers hope in more important areas, too. Snowy owls are at “vulnerable” status on the extinction scale. Currently, their global population is believed to be less than 30,000 in the wild. The main threat to the species is climate change – which continues to rapidly decrease their natural snowy habitat.

“The climate is changing more dramatically in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth,” Weidensaul adds. Reduction in snow means less camouflaged territory for hunting and breeding. Thinning of Arctic ice is also reducing the number of “spike” years for lemmings, and snowy owls are suffering as a result.

Sadly, the snowy owl’s decline is also directly linked to the poisons we humans use to eradicate the rodents they love feeding on. Poisoned rodents are often eaten by raptors, which then, in turn, die from poisoning, too.

But like so many conservationists, Weidensaul chooses to focus on the hope this remarkable sighting brings.

“This is a piece of the Arctic in downtown DC,” he says. “You’re not going to see a polar bear walking in front of the White House.”