Many Capitol Hill visitors come through Union Station to be wowed by the sights and attractions in the nation’s symbolic home of democracy. The latest high-profile visitor to “This Town,” however, has come for the rats.
A snowy owl, a rare sight in Washington, has been dazzling crowds of birders making pilgrimages to Columbus Circle with binoculars and cameras, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare Arctic visitor. The juvenile female has been spotted since early January on top of the marble statue, returning night after night to feast on pigeons and rats.
The owl’s whereabouts have been well reported as it makes its rounds from Union Station to the top of the Postal Museum and the roofs of Senate and House office buildings.
The powerful and agile predators mostly hunt at night in the winter and find high perches on which they watch for prey before swooping down and snatching up dinner in their powerful talons. During the day, they typically catch some rest on wide, flat rooftops, tucked up against something like an air conditioning vent to protect themselves from other birds of prey like eagles and hawks.
“Owls sit up high. They want to sit somewhere where they can hear and see everything that's going on,” said Tykee James, the government affairs coordinator at the National Audubon Society.
James regularly organizes bird walks around the Capitol and National Mall that are open to the greater Hill community, including one Friday. He said the owl may be rare, but a lucky Hill dweller may get a glimpse of it if they look in the right spots.
He suggested gazing up at the Rotunda or the corners of House and Senate office buildings.
“The first thing you might see is a security camera, but the other white thing might be a snowy owl,” he said.
Raptors like eagles, hawks and vultures are regularly seen in Washington, patiently waiting for prey or flying in big circles as they ride thermals and survey the ground for lunch.
The snowy owl may be the most recent rare bird to hit the Capitol grounds, but they come through from time to time, whether blown off course by a storm or for some other reason. Earlier this year, a black-bellied whistling duck was spotted splashing around in the Capitol Reflecting Pool. It later jumped over to the Lincoln Memorial before flying to parts unknown.
This winter has been a big one for snowy owl spottings up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but it’s rarer to see one in the middle of Washington, said Scott Weidensaul, a writer and researcher who helped co-found Project SNOWstorm, a group that tracks the annual movements of snowy owls.
Birders had been reporting snowy owl sightings in several locales around Washington since mid-December, he said. It’s possible that the owl had either been in the area before it was spotted near the Capitol or there’s more than one floating around.
The owl’s arrival coincides with a quadrennial cycle in which surges of the mouselike lemming rodent, a mainstay of the bird’s diet, provide the makings for a summer of owl love in the Arctic.
“There were lots and lots of snowy owls nesting. They had lots of babies, and so you get this big surge of young birds coming into the population,” he said. “When you get so many more young birds coming into the population, they tend to migrate south in larger numbers, and farther south than might otherwise be the case.”
The Washington owl probably has multiple areas where it hunts, commuting to find some late-night grub in the evenings from a secluded daytime hangout, which could be as far as several miles away.
“The fact that this bird keeps coming back to this spot at Union Station means it’s been successful there,” Weidensaul said.
The powerful predators will eat pretty much anything they can wrestle down their throat in the wintertime, picking off all manner of critters, but they have the most success with pigeons and rodents.
Weidensaul suggested that people seeking to catch a glimpse of the owl should not try to feed it and should give it plenty of space. But he said onlookers need not worry that the owl may mistake a person wearing a furry cap as dinner.
He said there's no reason the bird can’t thrive in an urban environment, and it’s likely unfazed by the crowds hoping to get a glimpse at it. That’s because after spending its short life in some of the barren and remote parts of the Canadian Arctic, the naive bird is seeing cities like Washington for the first time.
“Everything is new to this bird. Trees are a new thing,” he said. “Young snowy owls making their first migration south can be very, very approachable. They can be very naive about people, which can be a problem.”
He said it’s anyone’s guess how long the bird sticks around — it could be gone tomorrow, or it could stay through the winter — but tour guide James said he hopes the bird stays close until at least his bird walk that’s scheduled for Friday.
He’s never seen a snowy owl before and hopes to check it off his lifetime list. Friday also happens to be his birthday.
“If the owl is still around, I'm going to lose my mind,” he said. “That would be a birthday lifer.”