The Snowy Owl: Sentinel of the Artic Tundra

The Snowy Owl or Bubo scandiacus lives beyond the tree line in the artic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Many of them migrate south in the winter, and this movement is thought to coincide with the availability of lemmings.

The Hunting Habits of the Snowy Owl

The Snowy Owl, however, is an excellent hunter. It is diurnal, which means it hunts during the early daylight hours, and it is also an opportunistic hunter. Snowy Owls will kill, and eat even large prey such as geese, artic hares, pheasant, and foxes. They will even catch and consume fish. The owl will consume its prey whole, if it is small, and then regurgitate the fur and bones as pellets. Larger prey will be torn into chunks, and consumed, without being regurgitated.

The General Appearance of a Snowy Owl

The Snowy owl is a very large bird. The male can weigh in at about 4 pounds, or 1.8 kilograms, and the female at about 5 pounds, or 2.3 kilograms. They have very large, strong claws, and a wingspan approximately 5 feet, or 1.5 meters in length. These birds are fierce enough to stand up to most predators.

The owl is covered with a large amount of down, and feathers; even around its legs, and black beak. This provides it with ample insulation against the most extreme weather. In fact, it will pant in order to cool itself down, and it is not unusual to see one sitting on a snow patch, or an ice floe, and basking in the winter sun.

An adult male is almost pure white, with a few bars of black dotting its feathers. An adult female has a lot more barring, which is rather brown in appearance. A juvenile male will have extensive barring, and the juvenile female the most barring of all: to the point where she looks gray rather than white. Their heads have a rounder shape, as their ear tufts are difficult to distinguish.

Their Courtship and Breeding Habits

Snowy Owls that have migrated, during the winter months, return in February, or March. The mating season is sometime in April, and the males will court the females with displays of slow, flapping wing beats, and gifts of food. The female will scratch out a small depression in the earth, on a site with some elevation. The nest, itself, will be constructed of plants, and feathers.

A female will lay a clutch of eggs that varies in size with the availability of food: anywhere between 5 to 12 eggs. The eggs are laid about 2 days apart. This is a strategy to help ensure the continuation of the species. The older birds have a greater chance of survival, when food is scarce, as they will fight to get fed first. The younger, and hence, smaller birds will eventually starve to death.

The female Snowy Owl will stay on the nest until the eggs are hatched. The male will feed her during this time, and he will feed the fledglings once they have hatched out. Predators are not likely to rob the nest, due to the presence of the female, unless they are swift flyers, like the Jaegers.

The eggs are hatched in July, after a month of brooding. The hatchlings will not be fully fledged until they are about 2 months old. After one month, they leave the nest, but they stay close to their parents for another month, as they cannot fly. Newly hatched birds will be a soft, downy white, but after a few days they will look almost black in color.

A Fierce Defender against Predators

A Snowy Owl will stand up to most predators, and has been known to give chase, even to those half a mile away from the nest. Also, Snowy Owls do not hunt near their nests. For this reason, many birds will nest close to them as a way of enjoying some protection from predators, such as foxes. Their constant vigil has also meant the survival, and propagation, of other species.

An encounter with a Snowy Owl is an unforgettable experience. These swift, and silent flyers allow close approach, outside of the breeding season. Their enigmatic beauty has drawn many people to seek them out.

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