Snowy owl roosts on chimney cap in in Bay View, delighting residents and birders

A snowy owl was sighted Wednesday in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee. The bird was photographed and viewed for several hours as it perched on a chimney cap.

Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
A snowy owl roosts Wednesday on top of a chimney cap in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee. It was the first snowy to be sighted this winter in the Milwaukee area.

A beloved visitor from the far north showed up Wednesday in Milwaukee just in time for seasonal celebrations.

And though it hung out on a chimney, it wasn't a jolly, red-suited man pulled by reindeer.

This wild one traveled on its own power.

It was a snowy owl, the first recorded in Milwaukee this winter.

The bird drew a crowd of onlookers and photographers late Wednesday afternoon as it perched on a chimney cap on a home in the Bay View neighborhood.

"Such a beautiful bird," said Rita Flores Wiskowski of South Milwaukee, an avid birder who looks forward to the opportunity to view snowies each winter in Wisconsin. "I wasn't sure we were going to see one (this winter) so it was especially welcome."

The owl roosted at the site for several hours, alternately resting and feeding on what Wiskowski and others identified as an American coot.

A snowy owl holds part of an American coot in its mouth as it stands on a chimney cap in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee. The bird, the first of its kind seen in Milwaukee this winter, was spotted Wednesday afternoon.

Jeremy Meyer of Franklin had been photographing birds Wednesday in Grant Park when he saw a social media post about the owl. He headed over to the Bay View neighborhood and captured images of the snowy. At times 50 people were gathered on the sidewalk and in yards, looking up in awe, Meyer said.

"The homeowners were so happy, they couldn't believe they had a snowy on their block," Meyer said. "It turned into a pretty good spectacle."

On the eve of the winter solstice, the owl provided a feathered inspiration to celebrate the longest night and the increased daylight ahead.

How large are snowy owls?

Weighing from 3 to 6 pounds, snowies are North America’s heaviest owl and are easy to distinguish by their white feathers and yellow eyes. They have wingspans of 4 to 5 feet.

Male snowy owls are barred with dark brown when they’re young and get whiter as they get older, whereas females keep some dark markings throughout their lives, according to the Cornel Lab of Ornithology.

Where do snowy owls live?

Snowy owls spend the summer breeding season on the tundra north of the Arctic circle. Come winter, some move south into southern Canada and the northern United States, including Wisconsin.

Some years more than 100 will migrate into the Badger State in an event known as an irruption. One of the largest documented irruptions was the winter of 2017-18, when 280 snowy owls were recorded in the state.

What causes an irruption of snowy owls?

Irruptions are thought to occur most often in years of high nesting success and high production of snowy owls in the Arctic, said Ryan Brady, conservation biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

The spike in population then results in more snowies than usual pushing south.

Is this winter looking like an irruption year?

There were seven snowy owls documented in Wisconsin as of Dec. 21, Brady said, a much lower number than is typically found in an irruption year.

In 2017-18, for example, 84 snowies were found in the state by mid-November.

So far this year snowies have been sighted in the following counties, Brady said: Brown (three birds), Burnett (one), Green (one), Sheboygan (one) and Milwaukee (one).

What do snowy owls eat?

Snowy owls are active day and night and use their keen hearing and sight to capture prey. Lemmings are the most common prey item for snowies in the Arctic. In Wisconsin the birds often catch and eat mice, rabbits, ducks and other waterbirds.   

Where's a good place to see a snowy owl in Wisconsin?

Snowy owls in Wisconsin are most often found in open terrain that is similar to their Arctic habitat. This often includes open areas along bodies of water, in agricultural fields and airports. They can be observed perching on telephone poles, fence posts, breakwalls and buildings.

In Milwaukee the birds are often seen near the Lake Express Ferry terminal and on piers and breakwalls along Lake Michigan.

The birds are also often spotted in the Oconto harbor and at Beuna Vista Wildlife Area near Wisconsin Rapids.

To check on recent sightings, visit eBird.org.

Snowy owl viewing guidelines and ethics

Snowy owls are a protected species in Wisconsin and harassing or killing a bird can result in a citation. Wildlife viewers, photographers and others should allow the birds plenty of space and not cause them to flush or move.

The DNR offers these tips for observing the birds:  

  • Do not approach an owl too closely — you are too close if the bird frequently looks at you, sits erect with open eyes peering in your direction or flushes from its perch. 
  • Do not play audio recordings. 
  • Do not feed owls.  
  • Minimize the use of flash photography, especially after dark, as this can disrupt an owl's activity patterns. 
  • When viewing from a vehicle, turn off the engine to avoid interfering with the owl's auditory hunting technique.
  • Ask landowners permission before frequenting private property, and avoid blocking public roadways and access points.