That holiday gift came in the form of a snowy owl, an arctic species that is
rarely seen this far south, even in winter.
Last Friday, a construction worker pouring concrete for a new driveway noticed
the owl sitting on houses in the Deerfield subdivision on Springfield's far
Appropriately enough, streets in Deerfield have names like Harrier, Finch Haven,
Dove, Crane and Gander.
John Stuart watched the owl off and on as it perched nearby for a few hours
during his work shift. Stuart is a falconer who hunts with a Harris hawk. He
says he likes to keep an eye on the sky when he works outdoors.
"It actually flew up onto the house next door to where we were pouring the
driveway," he said. Stuart added that he was glad others were as enthused as he
was to see the owl.
"It was kind of a neat thing," he said. "I've only seen one other snowy owl in
the wild, and that was in New Jersey."
Word spread quickly through the local birding community. Several people had the
opportunity to observe and photograph the owl — which seemed downright bored
with the extra attention.
Bright white droppings and remains of past meals (its diet consists primarily of
small mammals and birds) were noticed on the roofs of four or five houses in the
subdivision where the owl has roosted and dined.
The owl was seen in a harvested field Sunday afternoon but couldn't be located
Monday or Tuesday.
Steve Bailey, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey in
Champaign, said he heard about the owl's presence and was concerned that it had
been seen near the busy intersection of Archer Elevator Road and Iles Avenue.
"I was really kind of worried," he said of the Springfield owl. "I found a dead
one myself once that was roosting on the ground next to a busy road."
Snowy owls breed in northern areas where they have minimal contact with people,
cars, dogs and other hazards of civilization. He said motorists in the area
should be aware of the owl's presence and its relative inexperience with cars
H. David Bohlen, assistant curator of zoology for the Illinois State Museum,
echoed Bailey's warning. He said migration can be a dangerous time for snowy
Of the eight snowy owls reported to have visited Sangamon County since 1963,
four were killed, Bohlen said.
Snowy owls appear in central Illinois about every two to four years, Bailey
said. At least one snowy owl is seen in the Chicago area each year, and some
years have recorded as many as 12.
According to Bohlen's book, "The Birds of Illinois," wintering owls may visit
for only a few days, but they also might establish a territory for hunting and
stay all winter. A lack of food in its normal range may be one reason snowy owls
venture south every few years, in cyclical events known as "irruptions" or
Bohlen said records of snowy owls appearing in Sangamon County are few and far
"The most recent one was out by Illiopolis," Bohlen said of a sighting by
another birder around the year 2000.
"The last one I saw was in 1987," he said. "I remember it distinctly — it was
near New City, but it has been a while."
The owl seen in Springfield is likely an immature female. Young snowy owls are
heavily streaked, not snow white, and they are even harder to spot when they sit
motionless in the midst of vast harvested crop fields.
Bailey says owls found by birders may not be the only ones present, since not
all come to the attention of the bird-watching community.
Birders searching stubble fields for the owl Sunday, Monday and Tuesday saw many
more white plastic shopping bags and gallon milk containers than interesting
birds. Bailey says pieces of white debris can easily trick expectant birders.
"Oftentimes, I and other people go looking for them and we stop to look at
things we think might be snowy owls, but turn out to be other things," Bailey
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from southwest corner of grundy county Illino wrote: "there has been a snowy owl living in the ditch or in an old crib just one half mile from my house. It has been flying up out of the ditch every time I drove by that spot after dark for at least the last two months.thought it was just areally big hawk. Last week it flew out of the ditch just before dark and sat on a fencepost. I could not believe my eyes. there sat a HUGE snowy owl"