By Jennifer Thorpe
Many birders around Perth County have had the pleasure of observing these giant beauties in farm fields, along fence lines and on the tops of hydro poles just west of our county line. This week’s photos are courtesy of Kim Bailey who has been observing them here over the past six years, alongside husband and fellow birder, Don Bailey. Kim notes that the number of sightings has increased this past winter and she has seen them around Perth County up until June.
Adult snowy owls often remain in the Arctic for the winter, hunting lemmings, arctic hare and ptarmigan on the tundra, or sea birds near the open water. The young, who fledge at the end of the short months of Arctic summer, migrate south to practice their hunting skills in a milder climate, providing us with firsthand glimpses of these magnificent owls who are often observed in flocks.
Immediately recognizable by their white plumage and catlike yellow eyes, the snowy owl stands up to two feet high with a wingspan of up to five feet. Weighing from three-and-a-half to six-and-a-half pounds, they are the largest owl in North America. Males have distinct brown barring when immature but are almost all white when fully mature, in three to four years. Females, who can be as pale as mature males, will always retain some barring. According to Mat Seidensticker, a researcher for The Owl Research Institute in Montana, “Snowy owls are as well insulated as arctic foxes.”
Unlike most owls, snowy owls are diurnal, meaning they are daylight hunters who often hunt during all hours in the twenty-four-hour daylight of Arctic summer. Incredibly far-sighted, their telescopic vision also allows them to hunt during the twenty-four-hour darkness of Arctic winters. On the nest, the female is too far-sighted to see her chicks and senses them with the fur-like feathers around her beak.
Breeding grounds for the snowy owl often lie high above the Arctic Circle. The female makes a nest on the tundra, usually on a slight windswept rise that will be dry and swept of snow, by scraping a shallow bowl and using her body to make a depression. Owl pairs have been known to reuse the same nest for years, but nesting sights are often abandoned when food supplies dwindle.
Snowy owls lay the largest clutch size of any owls, usually six to eight eggs but up to fourteen when food is plentiful. Incubation is about thirty-two days, with eggs laid two to three days apart and hatching in that order. Devoted parents who show no favouritism, they nurture all their chicks, including the smallest. They have been known to chase off anything that comes within a mile of their nest, including adult polar bears who will eat unattended chicks. The eggs are brooded solely by the female and chicks are tenderly cared for by her while the male hunts relentlessly and brings food back to the nest.
American organization, Project SNOWStorm (www.projectsnowstorm.org), has been tracking individual owls since 2013, using solar-powered GSM transmitters. This coincided with the sudden boom in the numbers of snowy owls being observed during the winter months in the United States, numbers that hadn’t been observed in a hundred years. Though many of these electronic transmitters are lost in migration, the project offers a revealing study of snowy owl activity during their winter stay south of the Arctic circle as well as their migratory paths.
Of course, the most famous fictional snowy owl is Hedwig, Harry Potter’s loyal owl from the series by J.K. Rowling. During the filming of the 8-part movie series, some sixteen live owls were used, including great grays, barn, snowy and tawny owls. Learn about how the owls were trained for the films online at www.pottermore.com.
To find out even more about Snowy Owls, including sound clips recorded in Nunavut, visit www.allaboutbirds.org.