Why snowy owls are spending the winter in Detroit

January 10, 2020, 11:56 a.m.
snowy owl flying
Photo: Jim Cumming/Shutterstock

As winter destinations go, Detroit might not be first on your list. But some snowy owls that live in the Arctic tundra of northern Canada have gone south for the winter. Specifically, some of the younger birds have hit the Motor City.

The striking white-and-black owls are only visiting. Because there was an especially successful breeding season in their Arctic home, the birds are in town due to a migration event called an irruption.

Their usual home is now relatively crowded with birds, so they found a place where they didn't have to work so hard to eat. They'll return north in spring when it's time to breed.

"There's less snow here than there is in the tundra right now, so it's easier for them to find food," Bailey Lininger, a program coordinator at Detroit Audubon, told the Detroit Metro Times. "And there's less competition because the more mature birds are up on the tundra."

Most migratory birds have relatively predictable migration patterns, going to and from the same sites every year. However, the snowy owl's migration can be much more variable, reports the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Some stay in Canada or head to northern U.S. states in winter. In irruptive seasons, they might head as far south as Florida and Texas.

This winter, the birds have been spotted all around the city. Because they come from the tundra, they aren't used to seeing people, cars and buildings so they aren't afraid of them and aren't necessarily sure how to act.

They've been hanging out on buildings, and one woman even found one perched on her car when she came out of a post office.

"We want to be welcoming hosts for the snowy owls when they're in our city," Lininger told the Detroit Metro Times. "They're not used to seeing or being around humans, so don't harass them or freak them out."