Thursday, January 31, 2013

Snowy Owls

We have a lot of birds at the World Bird Sanctuary, and most of them I know at least a little about, but we have two Snowy Owls (Crystal and Ookpik) on our display line with whom I’ve had little contact.  So in order to learn more, I decided to research and write about them.
Crystal, our female Snowy Owl
The Snowy Owl is the largest owl, by weight, in North America.  They show up in the northern U.S. in the winter, occasionally as far south as Missouri, such as the Snowy Owl irruption experienced during the 2011-2012 winter.  They spend their summers north of the Arctic circle.  Snowy Owls are large and have a round smooth head, with no visible feather tufts.  They are white with varying amounts of black or brown.  Generally the females have more dark speckling and the males are more pale and become even more white as they age.

Often Snowy Owls can be seen perched on or near the ground, in wide open spaces, on things like crests of dunes, fence posts, telephone poles and hay bales. And when they do fly they usually stay close to the ground.

During the winter they spend their time around the shorelines of lakes and oceans, but can also be found around agricultural fields and airports.  Snowy Owls breed in the arctic tundra where it is treeless, making their nests on the ground. 

Some other names for the Snowy Owl are Snow Owl, Arctic Owl, Great White Owl, Ghost Owl, Ermine Owl, Tundra Ghost, Ookpik, Scandinavian Nightbird, and White Terror of the North.
Ookpik, our male Snowy Owl
Most of their hunting is done "sit and wait" style.  These owls are diurnal, which means they are awake and hunt during the day, but they will sometimes hunt at night.  Snowy owls will capture their prey on the ground, in the air or snatched off the surface of the water.  Snowy Owls will prey on a very wide variety of small mammals, but they are opportunistic feeders, which means they will eat just about anything.  They will prey on hares, muskrats, marmots, squirrels, rabbits, prairie dogs, rats, moles, and entrapped furbearers, ptarmigan, ducks, geese, shorebirds, ring-necked pheasants, grouse, American Coots, grebes, gulls, songbirds and Short-eared Owls.  Snowy Owls will also eat fish and carrion.

In the wild, Snowy Owls can live about 9 years; but in captivity they can live about 35 years. They have very few natural enemies. Arctic Foxes and wolves prey on Snowy Owls, their eggs and chicks while the birds are on their breeding grounds, and Skuas and Jaegers, which are gulls that prey on more than just fish,  may take eggs or chicks.

If you’ve never seen one of these beautiful birds be sure to look for Ookpik and Crystal on our display line the next time you visit the World Bird Sanctuary.

Submitted by Jaimie Sansoucie, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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