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ORI’s Snowy Owl Research Project: 30 years and counting

A snowy owl in flight. The bird is looking at the camera. Both wings are outstretched in front of it. It has a pure white face and underwing, but the outer wings, back, and top of the head are covered with black spots. Photo by Kurt Lindsay.

The Owl Research Institute (ORI) launched the Snowy Owl Breeding Ecology and Lemming Population Study in 1992. Every year since then ORI researchers have spent the summer field season in a hundred square mile area in and around Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska. Utqiagvik is more than 300 miles above the Arctic Circle (about 2, 140 miles from ORI’s home base in Charlo, Montana) and is the northern-most point in the U.S. Most importantly: it’s the only place in the U.S. where Snowy Owls regularly breed.

The Snowy Owl Research Project is the longest running study of its kind in North America. Our study represents the definitive record of Snowy Owl breeding population trends for this region.

Denver Holt, a white man with greying hair, sits on the ground with 6 snowy owl chicks, 2 in his lap. He is preparing to band them. The tundra is covered with brownish plants and grasses.

Each year, founder and ORI Director Denver Holt travels to Alaska, where he locates and monitors Snowy Owl nests, documenting the chicks growth and development, behavior, survival rates, and seasonal trends.

Over the years, ORI has also partnered with other researchers to put satellite transmitters on chicks (the first in the world to do so); study plumage development, nest defense behavior, genetics, stress response to research, and activity budgets; map nest distribution; set up a live snowy owl nest cam; and more.

To understand Snowy Owls, you need to understand lemmings

A lemming is held in the black-gloved hand of a researcher. The lemming is mottled warm brown, with an overall oval-rounded shaped body, small dark eyes, long whiskers, and a stubby nose. It is small, and takes up about 1/4th of the person's hand.

One of ORI’s most important contributions to Snowy Owl research and conservation is our research on lemmings. This research is one of our most difficult, and most complete, studies.

Why are lemmings so important? Lemmings impact all of the species that make their home in Utqiagvik, not just Snowy Owls—though they do make up roughly 90% of the Snowy Owl diet during the breeding season. In years with high lemming populations, most of the predators that eat lemmings have more young: Snowy Owls, Arctic foxes, gulls, jaegers, weasels. Indirectly, the sea ducks and shorebirds that nest in the Arctic also benefit: more predators eating lemmings means fewer predators eating eggs and chicks.

ORI traps and studies lemmings multiple times across the season—one of the most extensive lemming studies in the U.S. Over the years, ORI has recorded extensive fluctuations in lemming populations—and corresponding fluctuations in Snowy Owl breeding success. Over the years, we’ve learned that lemming population fluctuations are the result of a combination of factors, and, in general, do not follow a predictable cycle. Snowy Owls, however, are quick to assess and respond to lemming numbers and decide if they will stay in the Arctic to breed or spend their summers elsewhere, in better hunting grounds. How they are able to do this is unknown.

One thing we do know: lemmings depend on Arctic grasses and other plants for nesting and reproduction. Any changes to this vegetation due to climate change or other factors (like the quantity and quality of snow) will directly impact lemmings and thus Snowy Owls and many other Arctic species.

Snowy Owl populations fluctuate, but are overall declining

Over the span of our research, we’ve recorded dramatic highs and lows of Snowy Owl breeding: some years may have 30, or even 50 nests, others none. 2020 was such a year—throughout the shortened field season, Denver observed only 15 males, and no nests or females. While these highs and lows are a natural part of Snowy Owl breeding biology, their populations (and the populations of the lemmings they depend on) are overall declining in our study area.

A lone male snowy owl sits on a raised mound on the tundra. He is pure white. Photo by Melissa Groo.

Continued long-term research and monitoring is essential

All of our research on Snowy Owls and lemmings helps create the very foundation of Arctic conservation. Long-term monitoring and research help us understand what is going on and, more importantly, how we can all best work together to protect the future of the Snowy Owl.

Denver Holt sits on the ground by a snowy owl nest, taking field notes. A male snowy owl is flying up behind him, legs (and talons) outstretched, aiming to smack into Denver as a defense mechanism.


For more information about Snowy Owls, please see our Snowy Owl ID Guide

If you would like to support ORI's Snow Owl Research, please consider donating here: Conservation Focus: Snowy Owls and Climate Change.

For more ways to support ORI's work, see Donate and Monthly Giving.

Want to wear your support for the Snowy Owl Project (or our other projects)? Check out the ORI Store for shirts, hats, tote bags, stickers, and more.


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