What has fluffy feet, amber eyes, and elegant plumage? The new queen of Central Park—a magnificent snowy owl who alighted in the North Meadow ball fields of Manhattan on the morning of January 27, 2021. Word spread quickly over the Twitter account Manhattan Bird Alert, which tracks avian sightings across the borough. Spectators flocked to the park to catch a glimpse. The adoration was not exclusive to avid birders, though. This palpable excitement felt across the city was due to the fact that a snowy owl has not been sighted in Central Park since 1890.
The owl sighting was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Snowy owls prefer colder, rural environments. They can be seen in upstate New York during the winter and even occasionally on Long Island. Other boroughs of New York sometimes draw these elegant visitors—one even appeared in July on Riker's Island. Thanks to a long history of birding in Central Park, records of avian encounters could be consulted to date the last known sighting to 130 years ago exactly. Supposedly, 1890 was a banner year for sightings of this member of the raptor family all along the east coast.
Experts identified the snowy owl as a young female based on her black markings. The species hunts small rodents, but can also prey on larger mammals such as rabbits. Although the young owl appears to have just stayed briefly in the park, she was never lacking for company. Excited New Yorkers observed her from a distance, kept back by the winter fencing around the baseball field. According to the The New York Times, the Parks Department only had to interfere once to prevent the owl being disrupted.
The elegant owl had no such luck with her fellow birds. A territorial red-tailed hawk flew close to attempt to chase off the arctic intruder, but her feathers were only a little bit ruffled. She had to flap her wings to shoo away a group of crows who similarly took exception with her presence. Raptors such as snowy owls sometimes hunt crows, leading to a natural animosity.
According to Paul Sweet, manager of the ornithology collection at the American Museum of Natural History which abuts the park, these feathered competitors likely hastened the owl's departure to better and less urban lands. Despite her short stay, the snowy owl of Central Park has enchanted New York (and the world) as much as Rockefeller the saw-whet owl did when found in the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Birders of New York must now await the return of a snowy owl to Central Park—hopefully in less than a century.
A snowy owl was spotted in Central Park for the first time since 1890.
— Michael Smith (@emeseditorials) January 27, 2021
The young female drew a crowd of onlookers who watched from afar behind a fence surrounding the field.
Snowy owl in Central Park!!!!! Spent my lunch today (27Jan2021) ogling this beauty with the throng of fellow birding paparazzi. #birdcp #birdnerd #snowyowl #nikonphotography pic.twitter.com/XxWS2flUEW
— EJ Bartolazo (@ejbarto1) January 28, 2021
The owl was harassed by a red-tailed hawk and a flock of crows, both of whom saw the owl as an intruder.
Once in a lifetime appearance of the Snowy Owl in NYC Central Park, North Meadow yesterday (1/27/21). A video clip of the owl being harassed by the very loud crows and not moving an inch. #birdcp #SnowyOwl pic.twitter.com/OPaVGMQva9
— Vee Nabong (@VenusNabs) January 29, 2021
Snowy owls can be seen in more coastal or rural areas of New York in wintertime, but they sometimes appear in the city too—including once at Riker's Island in July 2018.
Four more of the latest celeb-‘birdy’ snowy owl in Central Park (NYC) seen yesterday (27Jan2021). One of the crows being a nuisance,stretching her wings, shrugging off the haters and displaying her displeasure of a nearby Cooper’s hawk. #birdcp #birdnerd #nikonphotography #owls pic.twitter.com/0he6zcBzW8
— EJ Bartolazo (@ejbarto1) January 29, 2021
Pictures flooded Twitter and made headlines across the world.
Here are my obligatory contributions to the snowy owl photos. I took a break from work to see the second ever recorded snowy owl in Central Park (the last was in 1890). #birdcp pic.twitter.com/qbRLIqTCvs
— Ben Stadler (@TheBenStadler) January 28, 2021
No one knows when a snowy owl will next return to the park, but for now this lovely feathered lady has captivated New York.
— Joel Lowden (@bostexnyc) January 28, 2021