Skip to Main Content

Unexpected Plants and Animals of Indiana: Snowy Owls

Snow owl flying with big letter fonts on the right captioning: Unexpected plants and animals of Indiana Indiana is home to a large variety of plant and animal life, supported by the range of Indiana habitats, from its prairies to verdant hardwood forests. Discover some of the state’s more surprising species with Purdue Agriculture’s Unexpected Plants and Animals of Indiana series.

The lakeshore around the Indiana Dunes National Park welcomes Snowy Owls most winters, but when predicting if the birds will make their way to Tippecanoe County, experts look far north and to the past.

“Snowy Owls are one of the classic case studies in ecology,” explained John “Barny” Dunning, professor of wildlife ecology.  Their predator-prey interactions determine the owls’ migration in years to come.

Snowy Owls spend most of the year hunting lemmings in the Arctic. “Lemmings are known to have a population cycle of around four years where their numbers boom and bust,” noted Dunning. “In the boom years, the owls do extremely well. They have a high level of breeding success and survivorship.” In these years, the large amount of food sustains the owls all year. But a boom of lemmings means a crash will soon follow.

Snow owl flying (capture very close), snow in the field and blue sky in the background

“The population size of Snowy Owls builds up during the lemming boom. The next year, with more owls, the lemming population decreases.

“If the lemming crash is small, the subordinate birds are forced south to look for food.” These are typically young males, which are smaller than their female counterparts. “If the lemming crash is large, all the young are forced down, including the females.” In the largest crashes, adults head south too.

The recent crash of the lemming population contributed to a memorable winter for Indiana’s owl enthusiasts. “There was a period surrounding the New Year where we had a few Snowy Owls within 15 miles of Lafayette. Other Snowy Owls were reported in a variety of places around the state.”

In Indiana, the owls feed mainly on mice and voles. Unfortunately, hunting in unfamiliar territory can be dangerous. “One of the most productive places to hunt voles is in the grass of right-of-ways and medians near highways. When they are fenced, the areas can house large populations of prey because the barriers keep coyotes, foxes and feral cats out.”

Being from the Arctic, Snowy Owls have little experience with vehicles. “A large percentage of the owls that make it this far down end up getting hit by cars.”

Hunting in the dark, when mice and voles are most active, is another adjustment for the owls. During breeding season in the Arctic, days have 24 hours of sunlight.

While their adaptability is a lesser-known attribute, the reputational wisdom of owls is overstated. “The idea of owls being intelligent dates back to the gods of Ancient Greece and Rome, but it is not related to anything owls do that is particularly smart. Crows and ravens would score higher than owls in a test measuring intelligence or problem-solving skills.”

Featured Stories

Laura Bowling stands in a creek with students while teaching.
Agronomy professor Laura Bowling presented with 2023 Murphy Award

Just as her agronomy class was beginning on Monday morning, NRES director and Agronomy professor...

Read More
purdue pete group shot
Boilermaker Vegetable Season Pass returns for 2023 season

“As a family, we look forward to weekly pickups at the student farm -- everyone gets...

Read More
krystal hans
"Societal Impact Fellows and Scholarship of Engagement Fellows Programs" feat. Krystal Hans

The Office of Engagement offers multiple ways for Purdue faculty and staff to use their work to...

Read More
Dog on campus at Purdue University
Lack of canine COVID-19 data fuels persisting concerns over dog-human interactions

Early COVID-19 pandemic suspicions about the resistance of dogs to the disease have given way to...

Read More
2022 AFS Meritorious Service Award honoree Tom Lang, Dr. Eva Haviarova - a Society of Wood Science and Technology woman ambassador, and sophomore wildlife major Gabby Dennis with a glaucous-winged gull chick.
FNR Year in Review 2022: The People

The 2022 calendar year saw several FNR faculty, staff, students and alumni represent the...

Read More
Dr. Laura Bowling in the field with students
Charles B. Murphy Award presented to Dr. Laura Bowling

Charles B. Murphy Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching Award presented to Dr. Laura Bowling, the...

Read More
To Top