Battle between a snowy owl and a peregrine falcon—in Chicago!

March 9, 2012 • 9:50 am

Alert reader George called my attention to a story and photos of a battle between a peregrine falcon and a snowy owl—near Montrose harbor in Chicago. Snowy owls don’t make it down here often, but this year (perhaps because of a shortage of voles up north) the owls have been spotted further south than usual.   At North American Birding, Greg Neice posts about an epic battle between these two predators, with photographs by Rick Remington.

I’ve tried my best to get permission to use the photos, but have had no response from anyone, so I’ll post just three of  them here and give credit to birder Rick Remington, who took these lovely pictures and describes the bird-on-bird encounter:

I told John that something was about to happen, and sure enough a few seconds later a gray missile swooped in and attacked out of nowhere. At no time during the harrasment by the crows did I see the owl adopt the defensive stance she was using at this point. She instinctively understood the difference between these birds and knew this was a serious situation. I was watching the owl the entire time and took my eye off my camera for just a second, and saw that the attacking bird was a Peregrine Falcon.

Photograph by Rick Remington

I shouted “Peregrine” to John and he immediately turned his camera to follow the Falcon while I stayed with the Snowy Owl. It was cloudy with less than perfect light conditions so I quickly adjusted my camera to account for the increased shutter speed requirements of an in flight battle. I could tell just before the Falcon would attack by the way the Owl  crouched down and got ready to lunge.

Photograph by Rick Remington

It would do a somersault just as the Peregrine approached and flash its nasty talons in an attempt to scare off the Falcon. The battle lasted for 5 full minutes before the Falcon headed off in another direction and the Snowy Owl flew down to the rocks by the lake. It was a surprisingly violent and noisy encounter, with both birds shrieking loudly and the owl extending its giant wings to intimidate the smaller falcon. I fully expected this to end badly for the owl based on what I was watching. In spite of the obvious mismatch, the Snowy Owl managed to hold its own and escape unscathed.

Photograph by Rick Remington

Read more about the story, and see a lot more pictures, at the link above. Pity there’s not a video!

25 thoughts on “Battle between a snowy owl and a peregrine falcon—in Chicago!

  1. Ok, as a hobby birder only (I can’t get out nearly as much as I’d like), that is an incredible story, and even more amazing series of photos.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. This is awesome footage. Evolution happening right before our eyes. As the climate changes, territories change and the result is a battle between these two beautiful creatures of nature outside their “normal” boundaries. May the fittest survive.

    Excellent photos Rick.

    1. While you’re certainly correct that climate change can lead to new distributions, in the case of these winter snowy owl irruptions (including this year’s extremely widespread one) it’s pretty widely regarded as a response to resource fluctuation, in particular arctic/subarctic lemmings.

  3. That’s amazing.

    I would have thought the ‘mismatch’ to be the other way, for although the peregrine is far faster, the snowy owl is very strong and is quite capable of killing animals larger than itself. (Although peregrines also kill prey larger than they are.)

  4. I just notified Greg Neise on facebook that you were looking for response from someone to get permission to post the pictures.

    It’s a great story and incredible pictures!

    1. Yeah, I emailed Greg (I couldn’t find any contact info for Rick) about two days ago, trying to get in touch with Remington, but I never heard back.

  5. We were awfully lucky to even get decent pictures, much less video. It surprised me initially, but after 15 years it doesn’t anymore, how interesting the birding is in an urban environment. Sure, it’s a little more open near the lake than it is in my neighborhood, but we still get dozens of species in my tiny backyard. And, of course, the occasional predator, such as hawks.

  6. Now I can tell everyone that the great biologist Jerry Coyne said that I was alert!!! I found another interesting picture by Rick Remington – I assume it is the same person. I think Remington falls into the category of more good than lucky. The description is “A juvenile peregrine named Jerry caught a yellow shafted northern flicker in midair at Montrose Beach in Chicago on September 11th”. The photo identifies the photographer as “Rick Remington of Arlington Heights”. Go to this link and click to the fourth photo in the slideshow:

    Om a different note – GO MAROONS!!!! The University of Chicago Women’s Basketball team (27-0 and ranked #2 in the country in Division III) take on Calvin College in the third round of the NCAA tournament tonight. How can you cheer for a school named after John Calvin, one of the worst men who ever lived?

  7. Do you suppose the peregrine attacked because the owl had stolen some prey of mutual interest, killed an offspring or destroyed a nest? Something made him angry.

    1. I don’t know. Some birds just attack anything which might be a predator. Mockingbirds, grackles, and crows commonly do this.

      Never heard of falcons being like this, so you may be right.

    2. Predators never like to have other predators in their territories, there won’t be enough prey to go around.

      1. That was my guess. It may not be too early for the falcons to be beginning to establish breeding territories, too.

        Poor irrupting snowies must run into a lot of this territorial trangression as they struggle to forage in unfamiliar surroundings. Doesn’t help that they’re often juvies.

  8. This year’s Snowy Owl invasion has been tied to an exceptionally large lemming ‘crop’ on the tundra this summer, allowing Snowy Owls to produce multiple offspring, whereas they’re usually lucky to fledge a single beby. Lemming populations have been known to be highly cyclical for many years, so calling this a product of a changing climate seems…unwarranted (though climate change might well affect this pattern).

    Adult Snowy Owls establish hunting territories that they defend during the winter and this behavior, combined with the abundance of juvenile birds produced this year, likely resulted in high levels of competition on the breeding grounds, forcing the many less-experienced, younger birds further south.

    This is only speculation, but my guess is that this Snowy Owl found itself within the Peregrine’s breeding territory, which would have resulted in the interaction depicted here (Peregrines are well-known for driving away other raptors from their territories). Whether this is driven by defense of resources or offspring or some combination of several factors, I have no idea.

    Oh, and Peregrines nest in sympatry with Snowy Owls on the tundra, though they also nest in the lower 48.

    1. Yup. my new copy of Audubon just arrived and inside it was an article stating as such. Lemming population boom leads to Owl boom, young must search out their own territories, which is referred to as an “irruption”.

  9. There’s an article in the 2/12 edition of Natural History magazine. It includes a picture of an owl that caught a falcon. The article agrees with Cody Porter’s assessment.

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