Before leaving the safety of your car for the arcticlike trek across the grocery parking lot, you almost feel as if you need to scan the snowy tundra for wolves.
It's not far-fetched to envision creatures from the far north hanging out in our suburbs. The arctic snowy owl is visiting the suburbs this winter in record numbers.
"It's unprecedented," says John Bates, associate curator of birds for The Field Museum in Chicago. "They've moved south in big numbers. A snowy owl reached Hawaii this year, and another one reached Bermuda."
The majestic white snowy owls have been spotted recently near the Aurora airport in Sugar Grove and even on the roof of a Jewel-Osco in St. Charles, according to the website of Kane County Audubon, a chapter of Illinois Audubon.
"They come here primarily in search of food, and this one lands on top of a grocery," notes Pam Otto, manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District.
"There's food down here for them," says Bob Andrini, president of Kane County Audubon. The snowy owl, which many people know from Hedwig, the owl owned by Harry Potter in those wizarding books and movies, isn't truly magical, but it can hear a vole tunneling in the snow, swoop down and catch a meal, Andrini says,
Nine snowy owls are hanging out this winter at O'Hare International Airport, Bates says. The vast stretches of snow-covered grasslands around the airport "most resembles their natural habitat" and are home to plenty of rodents. Worried that the birds and their nearly 5-foot wingspans could cause aircraft crashes, some East Coast airports had been shooting the owls until protests persuaded them to announce plans to trap and relocate the birds.
At O'Hare, the Chicago Department of Aviation relies on USDA Wildlife Services, which discourages birds and animals by planting grasses that aren't attractive to wildlife, using daily vehicle patrols to disperse wildlife, and trapping and relocating animals, says Gregg Cunningham, coordinator of special projects for the aviation department. Those methods "have been effective at managing snowy owls" this winter, he says.
In addition to settling around O'Hare, a trio of snowy owls has been hanging along Montrose Harbor in Chicago. An interactive website at ebird.org, launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, tracks the sightings.
The reasons more arctic owls are visiting our area this year are complicated and need more study, Bates says. One theory is that there are more snowy owls in the arctic because warmer weather during other parts of the year resulted in a larger populations of lemmings and other rodents, so more birds ate well and survived. When the food source dwindled, those birds needed to look beyond their normal borders.
"These snowy owls have to go somewhere in the winter, so we're getting more snowy owls," Bates suggests, noting our current snow-covered landscape meshes well with the birds' specialized hunting skills. "This is what they do."
While snowy owls haven't been spotted near The Field Museum, Bates says he keeps his eyes peeled for them and other interesting birds whenever he drives out to West Dundee for his son's hockey practices and games. He says the Fox River draws some interesting finds for local bird-watchers.
A Townsend's solitaire, a long-tailed gray bird at home in the mountain ranges out west, has been seen for the last few months in the Jon J. Duerr Forest Preserve near South Elgin, Andrini says. He says birders watching the Fox River in Elgin have spotted a colorful Harlequin duck, a small diving duck normally found in ocean coastal regions, and a red-breasted Merganser, another diving duck that generally is found farther north but looks for open water.
Bird-watchers have been all atwitter at the chance to see snowy owls and other birds usually confined to colder climates.
"They should be. It's not a common phenomenon," Bates says. "At least we hope it's not going to become a common phenomenon."
The current forecast does make it hard to imagine this winter ever ending and easy to envision a pack of wolves setting up a den in the cart-return section of your grocery parking lot. You can get a glimpse of what that would be like during the St. Charles Park District's Discovery Days, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 8., when the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center brings in a gray wolf.
Once nearly extinct in the lower forty-eight states, the gray wolf has made such a comeback, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service last month proposed removing the species from the list of threatened and endangered species. Wisconsin is now home to more than 800 wolves.
Let's just hope the wolves don't find out that our suburbs now boast a decent supply of tasty snowy owls.