Are you ready to embark on a journey to the Arctic tundra, where the ethereal snowy owl rules the sky of the icy landscape? With its stunning white feathers and piercing eyes, this magnificent bird is a sight to behold. But there’s more to the snowy owl than meets the eye. Let’s have a deep look into the world of the snowy owl, exploring the fascinating facts about them!
1. Snowy owls have a stunning look
Snowy owls possess a remarkable appearance in the animal kingdom due to their white plumage. However, this characteristic only appears in adult males. The young males exhibit dark brown bars while the females feature a white coat with little brown flecks throughout their lives.
Due to the totally white plumage, the mature males stay warmer than the females. The hollow structure of the white feathers enables them to retain more heat than pigmented feathers.
These feathers envelop the owl’s entire body, including its head, feet, and legs. This adaption provides insulation, helping them survive in the frigid Arctic climate. Additionally, the owls’ feet have thick pads that function as snowshoes, preventing them from falling into the snow.
Snowy owls are equipped with an abundance of feathers to stay warm, which can add up to 4 pounds to their weight. This makes them the heaviest owl species in North America. In comparison, they are 1 pound heavier than a great horned owl and twice as much as the tallest great gray owl.
Due to the bigger size (2 feet tall with wingspans up to 6 feet), the female snowy owls have more feathers. This signifies that their weight has increased by 6 pounds.
2. They Have a wide Range
Snowy owls spend the entire year in the Arctic areas of North America and Eurasia. However, some only stay here in the summer when their mating season occurs. During this time, in North America, you can find some of their popular nesting grounds, such as northern Quebec, Alaska, or north Labrador in Canada. When winter arrives, these birds migrate to southern Canada and the US.
Every four years, a mega-irruption occurs, resulting in unusually high bird counts. Throughout these times, these birds have been observed in various locations, including Bermuda, Japan, Korea, Texas, Hawaii, and Florida.
3. They bark
We are so familiar with the hooting sound of owl species. However, the snowy owl is more special. Besides emitting this sound, they also bark. Scientists have identified that these polar owls have about 15 distinct variations of calls which are used for different purposes. They usually bark to warn off intruders or to attract potential mates.
When winter white owls are born, they also have their own unique noises. They emit a set of high-pitched squeaks that eventually turn into a high-pitched scream. This helps their mother to locate her young if they wander off. Their distinctive sound will disappear as they grow up.
Even though most owls are known to be active at night (nocturnal), the sleeping habits of snowy owls are not strictly confined to day or night. Their level of activity is influenced by their location and the sunlight.
In summer, the sun never sets in the Arctic. This means the white owls must adapt to hunting during the day.
In the winter season, their hunting patterns vary depending on the prey type and local climate. Snowy owls may hunt during the day or night, but they tend to spend most of their day perched in one place and start becoming active around dusk. They often hunt during the early evening or after dark.
When it comes to defending their territory or fighting against other species, snowy owls can be hostile and dangerous, especially in nesting areas. They will attack and dive-bomb intruders, whether they are humans or Arctic wolves.
Snowy owls are attracted to open areas like airport wind fields, beach dunes, tundra, and planes. These spaces aid them in their hunt for prey. While the open space can be advantageous for their hunting, it also poses a significant risk. Wildlife aircraft crashes and other incidents such as jet engine backwash can damage or kill them.
These birds are carnivorous. Their diet includes a diverse range of tiny mammals like Arctic hares, rabbits, voles, ducks, squirrels, geese, mice, and seabirds. They also eat fish and scavenge for carrion.
Their favorite food is lemmings, especially during the mating season. These birds are capable of consuming up to 1,600 lemmings annually, and as a result, their local population fluctuates depending on the availability of lemmings. When lemming populations are thriving, snowy owls can rear twice or even thrice the usual number of offspring.
To get prey, these species perch on poles or fence posts in deserted areas or hop and walk along the ground. When in flight, they hunt by making low passes, hovering just 3 feet above the ground.
To hunt the prey beneath the snow, even up to 8 inches deep, these beautiful owls use their exceptional sense of hearing to detect them. Their bright yellow eyes are surrounded by feather rings that reflect sound to their ears. Additionally, their beaks are equipped with bristly feathers akin to whiskers, which enable them to detect prey nearby.
If these abilities are not enough to impress you, let’s check this out! These birds are highly skilled at estimating distances, allowing them to swoop down on their prey with remarkable precision. Equipped with long black claws, which can reach up to 3.5 centimeters in length, snowy owls are adept at snatching up their targets.
What makes them fearsome predators is their silent flight. Due to their exceptionally soft feathers, the birds can approach prey without being detected.
6. They mate for life but can have 2nd partner
Snowy owls are known for their monogamous behavior, they mate for life. However, a male can have 2 partners, although this is relatively uncommon. In the wild, polygynous behavior is rarely seen in females.
The breeding season of snowy owls usually occurs between May and June. During this time, the males will display a ritual mating habit. They will put on an amazing aerial performance to impress females. Occasionally, they will carry a lemming in their talons and give it to the females while flying.
Unlike most birds, cute snowy owls do not prefer to perch or nest on trees. Instead, they like to remain on the ground, making their nests in quiet and grassy areas. The male decides the territory, while the female selects the nesting spot.
Brood size among snowy owls varies based on prey availability. Typically, they will lay around 8 eggs over a span of approximately 10 days. But in some cases, they may lay 5 or 11 eggs. The incubation period for these eggs is roughly one month.
Both male and female snowy owls participate in the care of their young and protect them from potential predators. If feeling any threat, they will attempt to frighten it off by extending their wings and feathers. If that fails, the creatures may resort to dive-bombing the intruder or enemies and using their beaks and talons to attack. If you get too close to the snowy owls’ nest, you may get serious head injuries.
The owl hatchlings typically leave the nest after just 3 weeks. Although they are not yet able to fly, they seek refuge in the tundra’s grasses to protect themselves from predators and harsh weather. Despite being on their own, the owlets continue to receive nourishment from their parents and are trained to hunt.
Approximately 7 to 8 weeks after leaving the nest, the young birds fledge and become sexually mature at the age of 2 – 3 years old. These birds have been observed to disperse over vast distances from their birthplace. For instance, from Victoria Island (Canadian Arctic), they can go to Ontario, Hudson Bay, or the far eastern Russian coast.
While snowy owls can live up to 30 years in captivity, their average lifespan is closer to 25 years. In the wild, their lifespan is shorter – about 10 years. However, some can even live up to 23 years in their natural habitat, according to researchers.
7. They store food
During the mating season, the male Arctic owls will catch prey and bring them back to the nest. The females will store these prey around the nest in a circular arrangement. Typically, the stock consists of 10 to 15 lemmings, but researchers have uncovered 83 lemming corpses in total.
Moreover, the male snowy owls create separate caches containing approximately 50 lemmings on distinct perches. These caches serve as a source of sustenance when food is scarce.
Snowy owls play a crucial role in their ecosystem by controlling populations of various small rodents, especially in agricultural areas. Unfortunately, these birds are currently facing a significant threat due to human activities.
Collisions with power lines, vehicles, and wire fences, pose serious risks to their survival. Additionally, illegal hunting and getting caught in fishing gear also contribute to their decline.
The impacts of climate change are also taking a toll on these creatures. The rising temperatures have caused changes in rainfall and snowfall patterns. This affected the rodent populations that are their primary food source. From 1998 to 2000, their food availability was reduced due to climate change.
Because of their thick features, these owls cannot live in hot weather. When the temperature rises, there are many more snowy owl fatalities due to heatstroke.