Today I’ve decided to write about a bird that’s a little nostalgic for me – in grade five or six I did a project on the snowy owl. While I can’t remember anything from my research at that time, reading about them now has confirmed what I thought when I was young: snowy owls are pretty awesome birds.
As their name suggests, they live where it’s snowy. The arctic is the preferred habitat of snowy owls, though they tend to be somewhat nomadic, following food sources around. When food is scarce in winter, snowy owls tend to come south, with a mass migration into the northern United States occurring about every four years.
Snowy owls are one of the biggest owl species in the world, with a wingspan of between 125 and 150 centimetres. This helps the owls preserve heat in the cold arctic weather, as larger animals have less surface area (relative to body size) over which they can lose heat. The snowy owl has other adaptations which help survive in the unforgiving arctic. Its talons are heavily feathered, protecting them from the harsh cold (and makes them look like they are wearing Uggs), and they are predominantly white, which helps them blend into their environment. Though they have few natural predators, this camouflage keeps the owls hidden while they search for prey. Here’s what it might look like on a typical arctic day:
Snowy owls, like a lot of arctic animals, rely heavily on lemmings and mice for food. A snowy owl has to eat a lot of food to maintain its body temperature, and can eat over 1600 lemmings in a year. Asides from lemmings and mice, they will eat rabbits, other birds, and fish if they can get them. These owls will also take advantage of traps set out by humans, raiding them for the meat caught inside. They follow the traplines regularly, which is smart of the owls but frustrating for the trappers. Snowy owls generally hunt from a perch on a mound that gives them a lovely view of the monotonous arctic tundra. When a prey animal comes into view, the owl swoops in for the kill. Unusually for an owl, snowy owls are diurnal, meaning they are most active during the day.
Breeding occurs in the summer months, with owls flying north to breeding grounds and forming pairs. The males perform lovely courtship displays, involving flying through the air with an undulating motion, before landing on the ground and pretty much bowing before his prospective mate. Once paired, the male finds a suitable territory and defends it while the female builds a nest. She does this by finding a small mound and digging out a small hollow where her eggs can be laid. Once the nest is built, she lays her eggs, one every two days. She will then incubate each one separately, starting with the first egg laid. This leads to a large disparity in chick size, but there are no reports of sibling rivalry or siblicide. Which is always nice to hear.
Both parents work together to protect and feed the chicks – they male guards the nest while the female is incubating, and he brings her food which she tears up and gives to their young. If a predator threatens the nest, both parents will swoop at the animal and drive it away from their nest. Isn’t such nice cooperative parenting lovely?
When I was younger, I remember being given the snowy owl as my topic, and falling in love with it. What strikes me the most about snowy owls is just how beautiful they are. I’ve always loved birds but snowy owls are one of my favourites.
Cover image By NaturesPhotoAdventures – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0