A Rare Snowy Owl Is Captivating Southern California

How the Arctic bird ended up among palm trees remains a mystery

A snowy owl sits on top of a roof in Orange County, California
The new local celebrity of Cypress, California, perches on a rooftop. David Crane / MediaNews Group / Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Last week, a snowy owl made a surprise visit to the Southern California city of Cypress, located southeast of Los Angeles in Orange County.

Excited neighbors and birders gathered to observe the raptor, which found accommodations on rooftops in a residential area. On December 27, the owl’s crowd of admirers surpassed 30 people at times. Some were locals, and others had traveled some 100 miles to catch a glimpse of the rarity.

“He’s just comfortable and roosting up there and looking at all of us, looking at him,” one local resident tells KTLA’s Vivian Chow.

“Stardom seems to suit him,” Chris Spurgeon of the Pasadena Audubon Society says of the owl to the Los Angeles Times’ Louis Sahagún.

A snowy owl in Southern California is very out of place—the approximately two-foot-tall birds spend summers in the Arctic tundra, where their white feathers help conceal them among the snow. Some might migrate just south of the Canadian border during winters. In unusual cases, snowy owls have been seen in Texas, but spotting one as far south and west as Orange County is “extremely rare,” Lori Arent, assistant director of The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, tells the New York Times’ Michael Levenson.

“They’re not supposed to be here—normally they don’t venture farther south than Oregon,” Spurgeon tells the Los Angeles Times.

Experts can’t tell how this Arctic-dwelling species ended up among the palm trees of Orange County. But some speculate it might have come on a ship.

“I hear stories of especially what we call pelagic birds or seabirds landing on ships and just staying on the ship for hundreds of miles, sometimes until the ship arrives in port,” Victor Leipzig, who teaches birding at Saddleback College, tells KTLA. “So, could an owl do it? Doesn’t seem quite as likely, but I don’t think we can rule out any of these ideas.”

Another theory from local bird experts is that the owl escaped from captivity. Or, it could have been blown thousands of miles off course by a storm, Spurgeon says to the Los Angeles Times.

Arent wonders if the bird will find enough food to eat in the area, per the New York Times. Snowy owls primarily feast on small rodents called lemmings in the Arctic. But they can also eat a variety of prey, including birds as large as geese.

So far, the owl appears to have found a meal—it was observed coughing up some undigested remains, Scott Thomas, raptor research chairman at the Sea and Sage Audubon Society, tells the New York Times.

A local bird watcher theorized that the owl’s visit could extend into the spring, per KABC’s Jessica De Nova.

In the meantime, onlookers are trying to appreciate their new neighbor. “It’s absolutely amazing, what a gift,” Nancy Menendez, who lives in the neighborhood, says to the Orange County Register’s Kaitlyn Schallhorn.

“It’s such a rarity to have something like this,” a birdwatcher tells KTLA. “It’s like a Christmas present from Mother Nature to us in Southern California.”

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