LINCOLN — An Arctic bird with radiant white plumage, a 5-foot wingspan and the world's most famous wizard for a pal has cast a spell on wildlife enthusiasts in Iowa and Nebraska this winter.
Avian biologists in both states have recorded record numbers of snowy owl sightings during the past two months. The bird, rarely seen much south of the frozen tundra, is perhaps most recognizable as Hedwig, the on-screen feathered friend of Harry Potter.
And the excitement a bird-watcher experiences upon seeing a snowy owl just might rival that of a Potter fan cracking the cover of a new release.
"It's quite the thrill," said Matthew Wetrich, naturalist for the Carroll County (Iowa) Conservation Board. "People who have even a remote interest in birds ... they're totally awe-inspired by these owls from the Arctic. It's a cool thing."
Never before have Midlanders had a better chance of seeing a snowy owl without traveling about 1,000 miles north.
In a typical year, one or two snowy owls might show up in each state. But since early November, 70 of the owls have been reported in Iowa, and 65 sightings have been reported in Nebraska.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Joel Jorgensen, nongame bird program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "It's an exceptional event."
The last time so many snowy owls visited Nebraska was in the winter of 1955, Jorgensen said. The most recent previous snowy invasion of Iowa occurred in the winter of 1994, but there were fewer than half as many birds that year, said Pat Schlarbaum, wildlife diversity technician for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
"They are a precious resource that links us with a pristine land to the north," Schlarbaum said.
So why has the official bird of Quebec decided to fly with Hawkeyes and Huskers?
To pull off a magic trick of sorts — making mice disappear.
Up north, the white birds feed primarily on lemmings, mouselike rodents with cyclical population booms and busts.
Most biologists figure that lemming populations have crashed, which would cause snowy owls to search for other sources of food. Apparently the ubiquitous deer mouse of Iowa and Nebraska tastes like lemming, or close enough.
Other scientists, however, theorize that when lemming populations are high, more young snowy owls survive the Arctic's winnowing conditions, which in turn creates more competition for food. Thus, more young snowy owls fly the coop.
Either way, when the owls get here, they're literally starving. Several dead owls have been recovered in both states, and others undoubtedly will perish.
But others have appeared to adapt to their new surroundings.
For those who want to see a snowy owl, don't bother to look in trees — the birds don't have them on the tundra. The owls prefer to hunt in open areas, although they have been seen perched on fence posts and power poles in Iowa and Nebraska.
Those who have seen the birds recommend driving along highways and roads with weedy, mouse-infested ditches. You can also check Internet birding listservs in each state for reports of recent sightings.
There's almost no mistaking a snowy owl for another bird.
"They're majestic and awe-inspiring," Wetrich said.
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