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 Snow