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Intro Photo: Tundra the Snowy Owl

By Will Thomas, Courtesy of Forge Mountain Photography

Tundra the Snowy Owl
Credit: Will Thomas on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Last week, as I was driving just outside of Toronto, I was mesmerized by what I thought was a large blob of snow atop a utility pole. No other poles had this rounded mass of white material on top - so I kept staring at it as I drove closer.

Snowy OwlFyn Kynd on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericTo my delight, it turned out to be a gorgeous, presumably male, snowy owl. It was studying a farmer's field and didn't move a muscle. I'm sure it was hoping to swoop down on some unsuspecting rodent any second.

Then I remembered a CBC news report I read earlier this year that confirmed that these gorgeous creatures are flocking farther south - even as far south as Florida.

So, as winter closes in on us, I thought I'd present some lesser known facts about snowy owls and end with an incredible documentary I caught on PBS titled "PBS Nature 2012 Magic of the Snowy Owl" which was published on January 1st, 2014 under a standard YouTube license.

 

If You Spot Snowy Owls, Don't Get Too Close

According to eBird, my go-to site for current birding information, snowy owls go through cycles of migration further south depending upon the availability of prey and the abundance of predators in the north.

Well, this makes perfect sense to me. Go where the food is and avoid being eaten at the same time.

So, if you happen to see a snowy owl this winter, don't get too close. In the PBS video I feature, at precisely the 10-minute mark, a snowy owl attacks three research scientists. Apparently, anything (including humans, wolves, and polar bears) that come within a mile of a snowy owl's nest can be attacked.

Cool Facts About Snowy Owls

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website provides a comprehensive overview of the life history of snowy owls. I found the following facts on their website:

Snowy OwlNeil McIntosh on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericSnowy owls hunt predominantly during the day and sometimes at night.

They are the heaviest owls - about a pound more than the Great Horned owl and twice the weight of the Great Gray owl, North America’s tallest owl.

John James Audubon reported seeing a snowy owl lying at the edge of an ice hole. It was catching fish using its feet - wow! Ever see the talons on a snowy owl? It's enough to intimidate me.

Snowy owls prefer wide-open spaces like beaches, fields, and marshes (as opposed to forested areas). To get a good view, you'll often find them atop telephone poles, buildings, or fence posts.

In midair, a snowy owl can catch a small bird. They are one of the most skilled hunters in the animal kingdom.

Snowy owls in the arctic primarily consume lemmings but have also been known to hunt other rodents, squirrels, rabbits, weasels, hares, wading birds, ducks, seabirds, songbirds, other owl species, grebes, fish, geese and more.

Sadly, I've heard about attacks on family pets, especially cats. It's best to keep your smaller pets indoors. Remember, snowy owls often hunt during daylight hours.

Snowy Owls Can Easily Hunt Down a Duck

snowyowlduckfly5
Credit: peggycadigan on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic

Breeding Grounds, Mating, and Current Status

Rather than nest in a tree, snowy owls breed in the arctic tundra. I was surprised to learn that they make their nest on the ground, usually on a slight incline where snow will not accumulate. Their nest is simply a scraped out hollow in the ground. The female snowy owl shapes it by pressing her body into the depression.

Snowy Owl Mother with ChickTony Hisgett on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericI suppose in the tundra is where one needs to be careful about getting too close to their nest. The nesting pair of owls, who are usually monogamous, may use the same nest for years.

A male snowy owl will often entice a female by holding a lemming in his bill or talons while flying nearby. Once he lands, he flaps his wings or holds them in a V-position. Then, he drops the prey where the female can see it, lowers his head, and fans his tail as the female snowy owl approaches.

Females lay eggs, generally ranging from 3 to 11 eggs - called a clutch. Clutch size is determined by the availability of food. In lean times, a pair of owls may not breed at all.

Although I still see the snowy owl's conservation status listed as LC (Least Concerned) on wikipedia, The State of the Birds Report 2014 has categorized them as a Common Bird in Steep Decline.

Snowy Owl
Credit: One Day Closer on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

A New Theory

In Living Bird Magazine, I read a fascinating article by Pat Leonard which detailed the massive snowy owl irruption last winter (2013 - 2014) around the Great Lakes and northeastern regions of Canada and the U.S.

In the article, a new theory was proposed by long-time snowy owl researchers Tom McDonald and Norman Smith.

"...the birds that come south are not starving to death and they’re not coming here because of a crash in the lemming population."

In fact, these researchers felt  that it was the abundance of lemmings that resulted in larger clutches of eggs and therefore more snowy owl chicks being born - and surviving.

"Those young birds have to venture farther south to find food as they disperse from their home territories at the end of the breeding season. Northern Quebec reportedly had a big lemming year and some of the owls in the recent irruption probably came from there."

If You Ever See One, You'll Never Forget Its Eyes

Snowy Owl in Flight Taken on February 1st, 2014
Credit: m01229 on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

PBS Nature 2012 "Magic of the Snowy Owl"

This is one of the best owl documentaries I've ever seen:

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