Snowy Owl Shows Up in Nation's Capital, Experts Say It's Targeting Large Rat Population

A snowy owl showed up in the nation's capital, with experts saying it's targeting the city's large rat population.

The snowy owl was first seen on January 3, the same day a winter storm produced eight inches of snow in the city, far from its summer breeding ground in Canada.

Scott Weidensaul, a researcher at nonprofit Project SNOWstorm, which tracks the movements of snowy owls. said some owls migrate south out of the Arctic every winter, but the number varies, he said.

About every three to five years, there is a spike in the population of lemmings, a small rodent, Smithsonian Magazine reported. The rodent is the owl's main food source, causing a larger number of owl chicks to survive in the years when their population increases. These years, known as "irruption" years, will have more birds migrate further.

"Snowy owls are coming from a part of the world where they see almost nothing human, from completely treeless open Arctic tundra," Weidensaul said.

"In irruption years, they tend to go farther south than they usually would," he said. "A lot of the snowy owls we're seeing now in the East and Upper Midwest are young birds, on their first migration."

Most winters, North American snowy owls don't really travel below the Great Lakes or Cape Cod area, Weidensaul said.

Snowy Owl, Washington D.C., Targeting Rats
A snowy owl looks down from its perch on a marble eagle of the Christopher Columbus Memorial Fountain at the entrance to Union Station in Washington, D.C., on January 7, 2022. The owl has been seen around Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood since January 3. Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Since January 3, the snowy owl has been spotted in the evenings flying around Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood, landing on Union Station, the National Postal Museum, various Senate buildings and Capitol Police headquarters.

Late last week, about three dozen people in thick coats trained their binoculars on the football-sized bird with bright yellow eyes as it perched on the stone head of Archimedes, a famous ancient Greek mathematician, carved above the train station entrance.

On eBird, a nonprofit platform used by birdwatchers, snowy owls have been reported this winter in Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina and Maryland.

Since it was first seen, the Capitol Hill owl has attracted a few dozen birdwatchers each night hoping to spot the same owl species that delivers messages to Harry Potter.

The onlookers have included new birdwatchers and those who have been doing it for decades, like Swiss ambassador to the U.S., Jacques Pitteloud, many hoping for a "lifer"—the first time a birdwatcher has seen a particular bird.

Last Thursday, the owl perched on a bronze eagle atop a flagpole. Then it soared, its 5-foot white wingspan silhouetted against the inky night sky, to land on a large stone orb held by carved birds, part of an ornate fountain.

Pitteloud picked up his camera tripod and ran through the grass to get a better view. When he later posted on Facebook, the 50-year veteran birdwatcher wrote, "The Superstar of Union Station! Snowy owl, a lifer for me in a very, very unlikely setting!"

Kerry Snyder, who lives in Washington, said she recently became an avid birdwatcher. "I got into birding during the pandemic—it's a great way to connect with people outdoors, when that's been the safest place to be."

She reminded other onlookers not to use flash photography, or approach the owl too closely, lest the bird feel startled or threatened—good practices for viewers observing any bird of prey.

Scientists consider snowy owls to be "vulnerable" to extinction and estimate the total global population to be less than 30,000 birds.

Weidensaul said that threats to snowy owls include urban hazards—in particular, vehicle collisions and poisons used to kill prey animals like rats, which can also kill raptors—as well as climate change.

"The climate is changing more dramatically in the Arctic than anywhere else on Earth," he said, and that may make sightings like this one even rarer. In some parts of the Arctic, thinning ice is already reducing the number of boom years for lemmings.

After decades studying snowy owls, Weidensaul still feels awe: "This is a piece of the Arctic in downtown DC—you're not going to see a polar bear walking in front of the White House."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.